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Teaching Virginia Bureaucrats a Lesson in Free Speech

Jon McGlothian of Virginia Beach, Virginia, is an Army veteran and an all-star project management instructor. His wife, Tracy, owns a successful sewing business and wants to teach her skills to others. But Jon and Tracy’s entrepreneurial dreams became a bureaucratic nightmare when they encountered the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

As it turns out, in Virginia you can teach anyone anything—except how to earn an honest living. That’s because it’s illegal to teach job skills to Virginians without SCHEV’s approval.

Getting permission to teach isn’t cheap or easy. Just applying costs $2,500. Worse, SCHEV won’t license any school until it has inspected the school’s facilities, meaning that applicants must lease teaching space before they even know whether they will be approved to operate.

And the burdens aren’t merely financial—schools must also convince SCHEV their speech is worth allowing. This requires explaining how their courses are of the “quality, content, and length” necessary to achieve their “stated objective,” submitting evaluations of courses’ effectiveness, and proving to SCHEV that their instructors are qualified.

Jon and Tracy tried to meet these requirements. They spent thousands of dollars and dozens of hours putting together a heavy binder to prove their fitness to teach, but they were repeatedly rejected and asked to provide more information.

Fed up with these delays, Jon and Tracy are fighting back. The government couldn’t regulate Jon and Tracy if they wrote books about project management or sewing—and under the First Amendment, their in-person instruction should enjoy the same protection. That’s why Jon and Tracy joined with IJ this summer to challenge the constitutionality of Virginia’s vocational school requirements in federal court.

This is the second time IJ has challenged Virginia’s requirements for vocational schools. In 2009, IJ sued on behalf of schools that train yoga instructors. But the Virginia General Assembly amended the law to exclude schools that teach people to earn a living by teaching hobbies like yoga. That was a victory for our clients, but it didn’t protect the majority of vocational schools.

Now we’re ready to finish what we started nearly a decade ago. Teaching is speech and, under the First Amendment, decisions about what to teach and from whom to learn are left to teachers and students—not government bureaucrats. If SCHEV can’t see that, we’ll be happy to teach it a lesson.

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