Important Free Speech Case Appealed to U.S. Supreme Court

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · September 15, 2011

Arlington, Va.—Should you really need a government-imposed license to speak about interior design work? That is the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court appeal that was filed today by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm that litigates nationwide in defense of both free speech and economic liberty.

Countless Americans earn their living in occupations that consist primarily—or even entirely—of speech. But courts across the nation have been holding that occupational speech is not protected by the First Amendment, even in harmless fields like interior design. In its High Court appeal, the Institute for Justice has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put a stop to this dangerous trend.

Locke v. Ehrig challenges a Florida law that prohibits aspiring interior designers from offering even harmless advice about such mundane subjects as the placement of office furniture unless they first get a government license, a process that takes six years and costs thousands of dollars. IJ represents three interior designers, Eva Locke, Pat Levenson and Barbara Gardner and the National Federation of Independent Business.

Florida is one of only three states in the entire country that regulate the practice of interior design. The Florida Attorney General’s office stipulated it has no evidence that Florida’s law has produced any demonstrable public benefits or that the unlicensed practice of interior design presents any genuine threat to the public, a fact that has been confirmed by more than a dozen government studies in other states.

“Virtually everything an interior designer does—from consulting with clients about their personal tastes, to making design drawings, to giving advice—is just speech,” said IJ Senior Attorney Clark Neily. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from requiring aspiring interior designers to get a license before they can offer harmless advice to their customers.”

IJ client Eva Locke said, “The idea that someone could be harmed by an interior designer’s advice is ridiculous. The real reason for this law is that the licensed designers want to keep out new competition.”

In 2010, a federal judge struck down a part of Florida’s law that restricted advertising by residential interior designers, but upheld the requirement that nonresidential interior designers get a government license. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed that decision, holding that interior designers’ “direct, personalized speech with clients” is not protected by the First Amendment.

“The 11th Circuit’s ruling is the latest example of a nationwide problem,” said IJ Staff Attorney Paul Sherman. “Courts across the country are ignoring a large body of precedent holding that speakers don’t lose their rights simply because they’re paid to speak. If the Supreme Court doesn’t intervene, this problem is only going to get worse as states extend occupational licensing to more and more expressive occupations.”

In addition to Florida’s interior design licensing law, in recent years states and municipalities have imposed burdensome occupational licensing requirements on such harmless expressive occupations as tour guides in Philadelphia, hair-braiding instructors in Illinois, and yoga-teaching trainers in Virginia.

IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor said, “This case gives the Court the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of judicial engagement by making clear that, in every constitutional case, lower courts must require the government to produce genuine evidence to support restrictions on fundamental liberties like the right to free speech.”