Mississippi Technology Startup Takes First Amendment Case to Fifth Circuit

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · December 21, 2018

Arlington, Va.— Thursday afternoon, Judge Louis Guirola, Jr., of the District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, dismissed a lawsuit brought by Vizaline, LLP, a digital geospatial and visualization technology startup, that sought to strike down a Mississippi surveyor licensing law that the state board of surveyors is unconstitutionally trying to use to shut down Vizaline. The Institute for Justice (IJ) announced today that it will be taking the cutting-edge First Amendment lawsuit up to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, following the lower court ruling which allowed the government, contrary to recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent, “unfettered power to reduce a group’s First Amendment rights by simply imposing a licensing requirement.”

“Our technology uses legal property descriptions to draw lines on satellite photos to provide a cost-effective way for small community banks to ‘see’ their property portfolios,” explained Vizaline’s co-founder Brent Melton, a 42-year veteran of community banking. “This allows banks to reduce their risks in real-estate loans and better serve their customers. Our customers are very happy with our services and I just want to protect our right to provide our customers with valuable information to help their businesses.”

In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major ruling in NIFLA v. Becerra, which ruled that “professional speech”—speech that was subject to licensing requirements—is not exempt from the protection of the First Amendment.

In the decision yesterday, the federal district court ruled that, though the Mississippi survey license regulations prohibit Vizaline from using publicly available data to draw its maps, these licensing restrictions “do not trigger First Amendment scrutiny.”

“Using public data to draw lines on satellite photos is not surveying it’s free speech,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “But the board and now the court seem to think that the First Amendment does not apply to speech regulated by an occupational licensing law. The Supreme Court just rejected that argument, but the lower courts aren’t following the ruling. That is why we are appealing this decision.”

Before and since the NIFLA decision, IJ has been litigating to defend the free speech rights of professionals across the country. IJ’s experience with occupational speech cases was the basis for its amicus brief in NIFLA that predicted the majority decision in the case. Currently, IJ is litigating cases in Texas, Virginia, California, Florida, and Oregon where government is trying to use licensing laws to stop ordinary Americans from speaking.

“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 IJ Attorney Kirby Thomas West. “The government should step out of the way and allow an innovative business like Vizaline to continue serving its customers.”