Arlington, Va.— Today, the real estate analytics firm Vizaline is free to legally operate in Mississippi following the approval of a consent agreement by a Mississippi state court. Vizaline is a technology start-up located in Mississippi that uses public data to draw lines on satellite photos showing property boundaries. This information is used by banks to better understand their property portfolios. Less uncertainty means safer loans, safer banks and safer customers. In 2017, the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Surveyors sued Vizaline for “unlicensed surveying.” In response, Vizaline sued the Board for violating its First Amendment rights, because using existing information to create new information is protected speech. The consent agreement was reached following a ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying that occupational licensing regimes are not exempt from First Amendment protections. Because the consent agreement recognizes that the services Vizaline is providing are legal, Vizaline has agreed to drop its First Amendment lawsuit.
“I am pleased that the lawsuit is over and that we can get back to providing our services to our Mississippi clients without threats from the Board,” said Vizaline’s CEO and co-founder Brent Melton. “The information that we provide has proven very useful to banks and their customers, and now we can continue to grow our business here and regionally.”
The consent agreement recognizes that what Vizaline does—use public data to draw property descriptions on satellite photos—is not the practice of surveying and does not require a surveyor license. Vizaline’s technology is similar to services featured in Google Maps and Zillow.
“Using public data to draw lines on satellite photos is not surveying, it’s free speech,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “You don’t need the government’s permission to use information to create new information and sell it to willing customers. The consent agreement means that Vizaline can continue to do what it has always done, free from threats from the Board.”
In February 2020, the 5th Circuit unanimously ruled in the case that “Mississippi’s surveyor requirements are not wholly exempt from First Amendment scrutiny simply because they are part of an occupational-licensing regime.” That decision turned on a major 2018 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in NIFLA v. Becerra, which ruled that “professional speech”—speech subject to licensing requirements—is not exempt from the protection of the First Amendment. The 5th Circuit confirmed that the NIFLA decision overruled prior 5th Circuit case law instituting a problematic “professional speech doctrine,” which exempted professional speech from First Amendment protection. The 5th Circuit’s decision in Vizaline has since been used to protect the free speech rights of a Texas veterinarian, Dr. Ronald Hines, in his lawsuit against the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.
The agreement has three key components:
- The Board acknowledges that Vizaline has not held itself out as surveyor service.
- The Board recognizes that Vizaline’s reports are not authoritative surveys.
- The Board agrees that using descriptions from property deeds to draw lines on a satellite images representing property boundaries is not surveying as defined by law.
“Mississippi’s occupational licensing laws—especially in the hands of self-interested regulatory boards—threaten technological innovation and the rights to free speech and to earn an honest living,” said Melton.
“Too often, established industries try to use government power to squash competition,” said IJ Attorney Kirby Thomas West. “Mississippi, and other states, should resist these efforts and instead encourage innovative business ventures.”