J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · October 24, 2017

Today, Bob Smith, owner of the Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School (PCHS), filed a federal lawsuit against the State of California to vindicate his First Amendment right to teach horseshoeing to anybody who wants to learn how. The lawsuit, which was filed by the non-profit Institute for Justice (IJ), challenges a recent California law requiring that trade schools like Bob’s deny admission to any student who has not completed high school or a state-approved equivalent. He is joined in the suit by Esteban Narez, a ranch hand who wants to learn how to shoe horses at PCHS, but cannot be admitted because he never graduated high school.

“Just like publishing a how-to book or uploading an instructional video to YouTube is protected by the First Amendment, so is teaching,” said Keith Diggs, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Bob and Esteban. “By limiting who Bob is allowed to teach and what Esteban is allowed to learn, California has not only harmed the students most in need of an education, but also violated their First Amendment rights.”

Since he opened PCHS in 1991, Bob has taught thousands of students to become professional farriers—craftsmen who trim and shoe horses. Like other vocational schools, PCHS, which is located an hour outside of Sacramento, offers an alternative career path to many who do not fit into the traditional education system. For students like Esteban who have limited formal education, trade schools are traditionally a clear-cut path to the middle class.

But according to the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, it is illegal for Bob to teach students like Esteban. Earlier this year, Bob opened his mailbox to find a notice from the Bureau threatening to shut him down if he did not change his admissions policy. A few months later, Esteban applied to PCHS, but Bob begrudgingly turned him down as the Bureau told him to.

Since 2009, the California Private Postsecondary Education Act has required all students entering a private trade or vocational school to have a high school diploma, a GED, or pass a government-approved exam. The law was intended to crack down on so-called “diploma mills”—colleges that offer bogus credentials, mainly to underqualified students, and often saddle them with heavy student loan debt. It is modeled after a federal law regulating student loans—except that the California law applies even to schools, like PCHS, that do not accept student loans at all. In effect, the law bans students like Esteban from spending their own money to learn a trade or skill.

In order for Esteban to attend PCHS, he has to either go back to high school, take classes to get his GED, or spend countless hours studying to take a government-approved exam. The exam tests students’ proficiency in grammar, sentence structure, arithmetic, and geometry, among other traditional academic subjects. There are no questions about horses or horseshoeing on the exam. If Esteban takes the test and fails, he will be shut out of PCHS.

Esteban withdrew from high school during his senior year due to a major injury. Since then, he has worked seven days a week to support his family. For him, time is money. Every hour spent studying geometry or grammar is an hour he could spend working to support his family. If he is going to take time off work, he wants it to be time spent studying a skill he can he turn into a career, not a skill he will never need again.

“For students with limited education, this law is this biggest obstacle to their success,” said PCHS Owner Bob Smith. “This law dictates that someone with limited formal education is not allowed to invest in themselves.”

Smith continued: “You don’t have to know algebra to shoe a horse. 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.”

Bob and Esteban’s lawsuit is the latest filed by IJ protecting Americans’ right to occupational speech. Countless Americans—from reporters to tour guides to lawyers to teachers like Bob—earn their living in occupations that consist primarily of communicating. IJ has active lawsuits pending across the country on behalf of diet coaches, makeup artistry teachers, engineers, and tour guides.

“California’s vocational teaching laws make it illegal to teach job skills to those who need them most,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “We are confident that the courts will recognize that this law is unconstitutional, and vindicate Bob and Esteban’s rights. ”