For a decade, licensed veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines gave advice online from his Texas home to pet owners across the world. Then, the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners said that his advice was illegal—not because it harmed an animal or was inaccurate, but because Texas prohibits veterinarians from sharing their expertise with pet owners without first examining their pets in person.
This is Dr. Hines’s second challenge. In 2013, he teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a lawsuit against this obsolete regulatory barrier, arguing that it violated the First Amendment. But the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that individualized professional advice is not speech but is instead the equivalent of occupational conduct like welding or surgery. In short, the court of appeals said that the First Amendment did not apply.
But earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court made clear that the First Amendment does protect the professional advice of experts like Dr. Hines. Armed with that decision, Dr. Hines and IJ are returning to federal court to vindicate his free-speech right to provide advice to pet owners in need.
“Ron has a First Amendment right to give veterinary advice,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “In June of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that ‘speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by professionals.’ That means Ron should have prevailed in 2015. We’re going back to court to correct this injustice.”
Since the earlier decision, telemedicine laws in Texas have also expanded the freedom of health care practitioners such as doctors and nurses to offer expert advice without first having to perform an in-person medical exam. But Texas has not extended that reform to veterinarians. That means Texas has stricter requirements for the veterinary care of pets than for the medical care of humans.
“It makes no sense to say that animals require greater regulation than humans, yet Texas has more lenient telemedicine rules for doctors than for veterinarians,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “The First Amendment does not allow Texas to let one group of professionals speak while denying that same right to others.”
For Dr. Hines, a retired and physically disabled Texas-licensed veterinarian, his right to give pet owners advice is not about money. For most pet owners he advises, traditional veterinary clinics are not a realistic option. Many who contact him online are either homebound, live in areas with few veterinary options, or live overseas. Their choice is either advice from an online expert like Dr. Hines or no advice at all.
“This case is much bigger than me,” said Dr. Hines. “I’m fighting not only for pet owners to have access to life-saving knowledge for the animals they love, but also for many more Americans to be able to freely share their knowledge online.”
The outcome of Dr. Hines’s case could affect the telepractice revolution for countless practitioners, including nutritionists, psychologists and many others who depend on the First Amendment for the protection of their speech.