SACRAMENTO, Calif.—The Institute for Justice (IJ) announced today that it will be taking a cutting-edge First Amendment lawsuit up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, following a lower court ruling that dealt a blow to some of California’s most marginalized and vulnerable workers. This morning, a federal judge in Sacramento dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School (PCHS) and a would-be student, Esteban Narez, that sought to strike down a California state law making it illegal to teach any “vocational” job skills to people who lack a high-school diploma.
“California is using the power of government to crush the dreams of thousands of people who just want to chase the American Dream,” said PCHS owner Bob Smith in response to the ruling. “This law tells students they’re not worthy of spending their own money to improve their own lives by learning new skills.”
For students with limited formal education, trade schools are traditionally the most accessible path to the middle class. Esteban, a 26-year-old ranch hand, currently works seven days a week in order to support himself and his single mother. Since he is used to working with horses on the ranch, he and his employer realized it would be a good idea for him to become a farrier—someone who shoes horses. Farriers enjoy good pay and lots of independence, and no state requires a license or any education to shoe a horse. But it does help to learn the trade from an experienced farrier like Bob.
“I want to go to horseshoeing school to better my life and further my knowledge,” said Esteban.
In April 2017, Esteban applied to PCHS after learning about it through his employer. But California law requires PCHS to deny Esteban’s application because Esteban never finished high school. Years earlier, Esteban had been forced to leave high school early in his senior year to recover from a tear in the medial collateral ligament (MCL) of his knee. Ever since this devastating injury, Esteban has had to work harder than ever in order to pay off the much-needed surgery for his recovery.
That makes Esteban an “ability-to-benefit” student under state law, meaning he would have to pass a government-approved test that has nothing to do with horseshoeing before PCHS could teach him to shoe horses. Like many working-class Californians who fell on hard times, Esteban has neither the time nor resources to waste on a useless test.
“It’s legal in California for Esteban to try shoeing a horse on his own, but it’s illegal for PCHS to teach Esteban how to horseshoe,” explained Keith Diggs, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents Esteban and PCHS in the case. “Teaching and learning are protected by the First Amendment, and that doesn’t change just because Esteban wants to pay PCHS to teach him.”
“Some courts ignore the First Amendment when people get paid for their speech,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “But the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government cannot violate the First Amendment just because someone pays to learn or gets paid to teach. There are two cases at the Supreme Court right now dealing with this issue, and we are confident those decisions will further support our clients’ rights to teach and learn.”
PCHS, Bob and Esteban are represented in this First Amendment lawsuit by the Institute for Justice. Brad Benbrook (Benbrook Law Group, Sacramento) has teamed up with IJ to serve as local counsel.