Free Speech Win for Texas Interior Designers

John Kramer
John Kramer · May 13, 2009

Arlington, Va.—Until yesterday, you could practice interior design in Texas, but you could not legally tell anyone that’s what you did for a living unless you had a government-issued license.

Yesterday, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a bill into law that eliminates the state’s restriction that only those with government-issued licenses could call themselves “interior designers” or use the words “interior design” to describe what they do.  The new law lifts that free speech restriction and now allows people to voluntarily register with the state and refer to themselves as “registered” interior designers if they feel the need for a government-given label to establish their credibility.

Why is this new law important?

Before the change in the law, a small cartel of politically powerful interior designers was using the power of government to limit their competition.  Now, with the removal of government-imposed limits on the free speech of interior designers across the state, capable designers who don’t want or need the government to help them succeed can get back to what they do best:  interior design work that pleases their clients.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm that defends free speech and the rights of entrepreneurs, filed suit challenging the law on behalf of four independent interior designers in May 2007.  Governor Perry’s signature came shortly after a ruling on April 24, 2009, from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals finding that the Institute and its clients were likely to prevail on the merits of their free speech claim and were therefore entitled to a preliminary injunction suspending further enforcement of the law pending the final outcome of the case.

As documented in an IJ study, “Designing Cartels,” the Texas interior design law was enacted at the behest of a small faction of interior designers whose goal is to legislate potential competitors out of business.  That faction, led by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), has worked for decades to create a cartel in the industry so that only ASID members may perform interior design work.  That effort is documented in a series of studies that includes “Designing Cartels,” “Designed to Mislead” and “Designed to Exclude.”

A remarkable facet of the case was the State Board of Architectural Examiners’ decision to try to defend the obviously unconstitutional law in court, with no apparent concern for the cost of that decision or its impact on the free speech rights of independent designers like the four plaintiffs.  Clark Neily, a University of Texas Law School graduate and senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, said, “The Board’s behavior in this case shows government at its very worst.  No reasonable person would believe that the government can prevent people from speaking truthfully about services they lawfully perform, and yet that is precisely what the Board argued in this case.”

“This is one of the most irresponsible, unaccountable state agencies we have ever encountered,” Neily continued.  “The Texas Board of Architectural Examiners spent two years and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars trying to justify a scheme that said people who lawfully perform interior design work should not be allowed to call themselves interior designers.  Although we commend the Legislature for finally putting a stop to the Board’s campaign of censorship, it is important to recognize that the Legislature created this problem by passing the unconstitutional law in the first place.  Hopefully, this case will serve as a reminder that when industry groups, like ASID, urge legislators to enact occupational licensing laws, they are there to promote their own special interests, not the public’s.”

Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice has represented entrepreneurs nationwide who successfully fought discriminatory government regulation.  IJ has successfully challenged interior design laws in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Connecticut, and plans to challenge the nation’s most sweeping interior design law, in Florida, by the end of this month.