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Tech Entrepreneurs Map New Terrain for Free Speech

Increasingly, modern technology allows entrepreneurs to bring us information that used to require hiring experienced professionals. Whether it’s Zillow for property valuations, LegalZoom for simple legal documents, or Mint for basic financial advice, new startups are constantly chipping away at the margins of longstanding occupations.

Of course, members of these occupations frequently don’t take kindly to sharing their turf, and they look to governments to punish people for disseminating information that they think it should be their sole right to disseminate. So it is with IJ’s latest First Amendment client, a Mississippi-based startup called Vizaline.

All Vizaline does is take two publicly available pieces of information and combine them into something that anyone can understand. The First Amendment means that neither the board nor any other government entity can claim a monopoly on communicating this kind of information.

Vizaline grew out of co-founder Brent Melton’s career in small community banks throughout the South. Like large banks, community banks often take on property as collateral for loans. But unlike large banks, which generally must hire professional surveyors to confirm the boundaries of property being offered as collateral, community banks often make smaller loans on smaller properties, where a professional surveyor is neither legally required nor financially feasible. Brent realized these banks still wanted more information about the properties being offered as collateral, and he set out to find a cost-effective way to help them “see” what properties they were working with.

So Brent teamed up with geospatial-modeling expert Scott Dow to form Vizaline. Vizaline’s software takes existing information—formal legal descriptions of property and satellite photographs—and generates an easily comprehensible image of where property lines are in the real world. Vizaline’s customers—which are all banks—use the drawing to visualize the property and identify issues that should be corrected with a survey or with the help of attorneys.

Unsurprisingly, Vizaline drew the attention of the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Surveyors, which sued the company to stop its unlicensed practice of “surveying.” The board also wants Vizaline to “disgorge” every dollar it has ever earned, even though all of Vizaline’s customers continue to support it.

But all Vizaline does is take two publicly available pieces of information and combine them into something that anyone can understand. The First Amendment means that neither the board nor any other government entity can claim a monopoly on communicating this kind of information. Since Mississippi officials seem to believe otherwise, Vizaline has teamed up with IJ to make that point where it counts: in court.

The kind of maps Vizaline makes are very useful for small banks, and they are exactly the sort of information that IJ’s free speech pillar exists to protect: useful information being offered to a willing audience.

The kind of maps Vizaline makes are very useful for small banks, and they are exactly the sort of information that IJ’s free speech pillar exists to protect: useful information being offered to a willing audience. All of us benefit from the right to convey and to hear that kind of information every single day. And whether on behalf of Vizaline, on behalf of tour guides in Charleston, or on behalf of the next startup that has yet to be imagined, IJ will remain on the front lines to prevent the forces of protectionism from taking that right away from any of us.

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