IJ Scores First Amendment Victory for California Cowboy

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 11, 2020

ARLINGTON, Va.—In a sweeping victory for free speech, yesterday a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment protects teachers’ right to teach as well as students’ right to learn. The three-judge panel’s unanimous decision ruled that California likely violated the constitutional rights of Bob Smith, owner of Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School, by prohibiting him from teaching students how to shoe horses regardless of their past educational achievements. In 2017, Smith partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit public interest law firm, to challenge the California law that requires vocational students to have minimum educational credentials before being allowed to enroll in a trade school.

“When California started requiring that my students obtain a GED or pass a test, they made it illegal to teach job skills to those who need them most,” said Smith, who has taught horseshoeing to thousands of students over the years. Some of those students had never finished high school—and for students without a high school diploma, horseshoeing offers a clear-cut path to the middle class.

No state restricts the practice of horseshoeing—any Californian may try shoeing horses on their own—and today’s opinion vindicates that California certainly can’t make it illegal to teach horseshoeing

Under California law, people without a high school diploma may not enroll in a private “vocational” school without first taking and passing government-mandated tests—either the GED or a set of tests that gauge a student’s proficiency in math, reading, writing, and other criteria. Because Bob did not require his students to take that test, California threatened to shut PCHS down.

“You don’t have to know algebra to shoe a horse,” said Smith. “You don’t have to know how to read a novel to shoe a horse. Horses don’t do math and horses don’t speak English. It makes no sense to require a high school education to learn a trade that was around for centuries before the printing press came along.”

The Institute for Justice also represented Esteban Narez in the lawsuit. Esteban, who left high school after a football injury and entered the workforce to support himself and his mother, works with horses and applied to PCHS because he knew that he could earn a better living as a farrier. But Bob was forced by the state to reject Esteban’s application.

“Both teaching and learning are protected by the First Amendment,” said IJ Attorney Keith Diggs. “Just like writing a book or making a video is protected by the First Amendment, so is teaching. That doesn’t change just because someone pays tuition or gets paid to teach.”

“Countless Americans earn their living by talking, but governments have long acted like the First Amendment does not apply to such ‘occupational’ speech,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “The court’s ruling here is the latest IJ case to recognize that the Constitution protects the speech of doctors, diet coaches, technology startups, veterinarians, farrier teachers, and many other Americans.”

The case now returns to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. Because California is restricting Bob’s and Esteban’s First Amendment rights, the state will have to demonstrate, with real evidence, that its regulations can survive First Amendment scrutiny.

IJ Attorneys Keith Diggs and Paul Avelar are available for interviews via phone or Zoom.