Is Advice Given Over The Internet Free Speech?

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · January 5, 2015

  • The Texas Veterinary Board punished a disabled veterinarian for giving online advice
  • Professional, online advice question will ultimately head to Supreme Court
  • Censorship of online advice grows with national expansion of occupational licensing

NEW ORLEANS—Does the First Amendment apply to licensed professionals who give advice over the Internet? That is the question to be presented to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans tomorrow in a high-profile case that pits a veterinarian against the Texas Veterinary Board.

Dr. Ron Hines—a disabled retiree and Texas-licensed veterinarian—had begun to use the Internet in 2002 to help pet owners from across the the world, often in remote locations and often for free. He uses the Internet to remain productive and share his lifetime of wisdom and experience. But in 2012, Dr. Hines stopped because he discovered that he had been on a decade-long crime spree: In Texas, as in a majority of states, it is a crime for a veterinarian to give advice over the Internet without having first physically examined the animal.

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. Texas did this without even an allegation that he harmed any animal. In response, Dr. Hines joined with the Institute for Justice to file a free-speech lawsuit in federal court to vindicate his First Amendment right to communicate with people about their pets using the Internet.

“This case is bigger than Ron Hines,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “It’s about protecting Internet freedom and free speech for Americans everywhere. Ron’s case raises one of the most important unanswered questions in First Amendment law: When does the government’s power to license occupations trump free speech?”

In the 1950s, only one in 20 workers needed a government license to pursue their chosen occupation. Today, that figure stands at almost one in three.

The Institute for Justice is currently litigating two similar cases based out of North Carolina and Kentucky. In North Carolina, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition wants to use its licensing power to shut down a blogger who uses the Internet to give advice about the low-carb “Paleolithic,” or “Paleo,” diet. In Kentucky, John Rosemond—America’s longest running newspaper advice columnist—was ordered by the state’s Psychology Board to cease publishing his parenting column.

Tomorrow’s argument will take place in the morning in front of a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at 600 Camp Street, New Orleans, LA 70130. The court convenes at 9 a.m. and Dr. Hines’ case is the fourth case on the docket.