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Free Speech Fight: Texas Veterinarian Heads to Appeals Court for Right to Give Advice Online

First Amendment Lawsuit Has Major Implications for Free Speech and Telepractice

AUSTIN, TexasToday, Texas veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines announced that he will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to recognize that a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer, NIFLA v. Becerra, established that the First Amendment protects the right of licensed professionals to give advice over the internet.

Ron joined forces with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to sue Texas in 2013 after the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners shut him down for giving advice to pet owners online, fining him and suspending his license because Texas law requires that veterinarians physically examine animals before giving advice about them. In 2015, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that law constitutional: Dr. Hines had no free speech right to give advice online. But a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision changed the landscape, giving Dr. Hines the opportunity to argue again that licensed professionals have the same free speech rights as everybody else. Today, the U.S. District Court in Brownsville disagreed, ruling that NIFLA does not apply, and that Texas can constitutionally allow telemedicine for physicians but not veterinarians.

“This case is about the online revolution, free speech and over-regulation,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes, who represents Dr. Hines. “With more and more advice coming online, the viability of many kinds of telepractice depends on robust protection of speech.”

After a disability made physical practice too difficult, Dr. Hines spent a decade of his retirement giving online advice to pet owners around the world. For most pet owners he advised, traditional veterinary clinics were not a realistic option. Dr. Hines charged little to nothing, and there was no evidence that animals were anything other than benefitted. Nonetheless, the Texas veterinary board suspended Dr. Hines’ license, fined him and forced him to stop giving life-saving advice. The 5th Circuit then ruled against him in his initial lawsuit. Since then, however, major developments in First Amendment law such as NIFLA prompted Dr. Hines to renew his lawsuit.

Rowes explained, “The trial court decided today that Dr. Hines gave up his right to free speech when he received a professional license. That’s just wrong. Last year, the Supreme Court made clear that there’s no First Amendment exception for professional speech. Texas will let Dr. Hines say anything he wants over Skype—except the best way to care for a specific animal. There’s no justification for this censorship.”

IJ Attorney Andrew Ward, who also represents Dr. Hines, explained that Texas would have no problem if Dr. Hines were a medical doctor treating human beings. “In 2017, Texas recognized the safety of human telemedicine. And if telepractice makes sense for babies and grandmothers, it makes sense for veterinarians treating pets.”        

“This is just a temporary setback,” said Dr. Hines. “We’ll keep fighting until veterinarians are free to share their knowledge with pet owners across the country and around the world.”

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