Mississippi Startup Files First Amendment Countersuit Against State Licensing Board

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · July 10, 2018

Arlington, Va. — Should you need a license to use public information to draw lines on satellite photos? That is what the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Surveyors argued when they sued Vizaline, LLC, and co-founder Brent Melton for “unlicensed surveying” and sought to stop the company from operating and to have all its earnings returned to its customers. Yesterday, however, the company filed a countersuit in partnership with the Institute for Justice (IJ) arguing that the Board violated its First Amendment right to convey information to willing customers.

Vizaline provides a cost-effective way for banks to assess small, less expensive properties within their portfolios. It puts the public legal description of a property into a computer program in order to generate an outline of the property, which is then placed over a satellite photo of the property. This helps banks “see” their different properties and assess whether a surveyor and lawyer are needed to further verify the property or resolve any discrepancies in the legal description.

“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 existing information to create new information and sell it to willing customers.”

The board does not allege that Vizaline is engaged in traditional surveying. Instead, it argues that using public information to develop survey maps, plans, or reports requires a survey license. As part of its suit, the Board wants Brent and Vizaline to “immediately disgorge themselves” of all fees and compensation earned in the state, which could bankrupt the company.

“The government shouldn’t force me to return all the money my clients paid when they are perfectly satisfied with our services,” said Vizaline’s co-founder Brent Melton, a 42-year veteran in community banking. “I just want to protect my right to provide my customers with valuable information to help their businesses.”

Brent and Vizaline’s case is part of a growing, nationwide trend of occupational licensing boards restricting speech. In 2011, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition ordered paleo-diet blogger Steve Cooksey to stop providing online dietary advice. In 2013, the Kentucky Board of Examiners of Psychology accused family psychologist John Rosemond of the unlicensed practice of psychology because of advice published in his nationally-syndicated newspaper column.

“This is just the latest example of a licensing board needlessly expanding its authority to hinder new competition,” said IJ Attorney Johanna Talcott. “The government should step out of the way and allow an innovative business like Vizaline to continue serving its customers.”