Phillip Suderman · March 7, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—Should drawing a map created with publicly available information require a license and, by extension, the permission of the government? For most people, the answer would be no. But the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals has decided the answer to this simple and basic act is “yes” in a ruling that strips away the First Amendment rights of Ryan Crownholm, an Army veteran and entrepreneur in Los Angeles. Now Ryan, along with the Institute for Justice (IJ), will petition for en banc review with the goal of restoring his right to communicate with clients without interference from the government.

Ryan Crownholm is an Army veteran and self-described “serial entrepreneur” who runs a business called He uses publicly available Geographic Information System (GIS) maps and adds additional information to create new maps for customers called “site plans.” These drawings are used for planning purposes, but they are not authoritative drawings meant to establish original measurements. Ryan’s website explicitly states that “this is not a legal survey, nor is it intended to replace one.” Furthermore, California’s own building departments teach homeowners and contractors how to make the exact same drawings Ryan makes. 

None of that stopped the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists from fining for what it claimed was unlicensed land surveying. On Dec. 28, 2021, officials sent Ryan a “citation order” via email demanding that he “cease and desist from violating” the law and that he pay an administrative fine of $1,000. 

Ryan fought back with the help of IJ. At the heart of the argument was that Ryan’s maps are protected speech under the First Amendment. The First Amendment’s protection for free speech isn’t limited to political advocacy or expressions of personal opinion—it extends to speech on all topics. As the Supreme Court has held, using, creating and disseminating information is speech, and that is all Ryan’s maps do.

But the Ninth Circuit claimed that Ryan isn’t engaging in speech at all. In the court’s view, California’s choice to define Ryan’s maps as the “practice of land surveying”—a profession ordinarily requiring a license—transformed his speech into “conduct” outside of the First Amendment’s protection.

“The First Amendment doesn’t make any exceptions just because the government wants to call speech part of a ‘profession,’” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “The Supreme Court has already said so, and to claim that speech isn’t speech simply because California wants to require an occupational license for it doesn’t make any sense.”

“Not only is requiring a license for this type of speech unconstitutional, it would pose very real practical problems,” said IJ Attorney Mike Greenberg. “The court’s reasoning suggests we need a government license to draw maps from sources like Google Maps and Uber—things that Californians use every day. And thousands of homeowners and contractors in California who do exactly what Ryan does, at the request of their building departments, are now speech criminals.”

IJ has fought back against similar regulations on occupational speech, including a case in Mississippi which ultimately led to a similar surveying law being struck down, a California case which ended a law that criminalized teaching trades to people without a high school diploma, and an ongoing North Carolina case which challenges a law that says taking photos with a drone should be regulated as “surveying.”

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 To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may contact Phillip Suderman, IJ’s Communications Project Manager, at [email protected], (850) 376-4110. More information on the case is available at: