Texas Veterinarian Will Ask U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Free Speech Case about Advice over the Internet

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · March 30, 2015

Austin, Tx.—Today, Texas veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines announced his intent to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review his lawsuit challenging the Texas Veterinary Board’s prohibition on offering veterinary advice over the Internet. Dr. Hines’ announcement follows an adverse ruling on Friday, March 27th, 2015, by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Texas’s law requiring that a veterinarian physically examine an animal prior to offering advice on how to treat or care for it.

“This case stands at the crossroads of internet freedom, free speech, and economic liberty,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes, who represents Dr. Hines. “Dr. Hines gives advice for a living, and advice is speech protected by the First Amendment. This case is ripe for review because the federal courts of appeal across the country disagree about the extent to which the First Amendment protects the speech of licensed professionals when they give individually tailored advice.”

Since 2002, Dr. Ron Hines—who is disabled and a Texas-licensed veterinarian—kept active in his retirement by providing advice over the internet to pet owners from around the the world, often in remote locations, and often for free. After more than ten years, on March 25, 2013, the Texas Veterinary Board shut Dr. Hines down, suspended his license, fined him and made him retake portions of the veterinary licensing exam because of his Internet advice. In Texas, as in a number of other states, it is a crime for veterinarians to give advice without having first physically examined the animal. Texas shut Hines down without even an allegation that Dr. Hines harmed any animal.

On Friday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Dr. Hines. “The 5th Circuit concluded that the First Amendment either doesn’t apply or barely applies to Dr. Hines, even though all he did was communicate with pet owners via the Internet,” said Matt Miller, managing attorney of IJ’s Texas office. “The decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and those of other federal courts make it clear that the government cannot force you to give up your First Amendment rights just because you have an occupational license,” he added.

Dr. Hines is expected to file his petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court in late June. He has 90 days from the date of the Court of Appeals’ decision.

The Institute for Justice is currently litigating a similar case in Kentucky that challenges the state’s use of psychology-licensing statutes to regulate the speech of a newspaper advice columnist. The Institute for Justice has pioneered the area of occupational speech. In June 2014, IJ won an important victory in the District of Columbia, where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the city’s tour-guide licensing scheme, finding that it was an unconstitutional infringement of tour guides’ free speech rights.