Brownsville, TX.—Late on Tuesday, February 11, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas denied the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners’ motion to dismiss Internet veterinarian Ron Hines’ challenge to a Texas law banning online veterinary advice. The court ruled that the First Amendment applies to veterinarians who give advice online. The Institute for Justice filed suit on behalf of Dr. Hines in April 2013.
Senior Judge Hilda Tagle ruled that, “In sum, the Court finds that the First Amendment applies to the professional regulations at issue in this case, and that the regulations, as applied to Hines’s professional speech, are subject to heightened scrutiny[.]” Dr. Hines—a retired and physically disabled Texas-licensed veterinarian—has used the Internet since 2002 to help pet owners from across the country and around the world, often for free. He helped people who received conflicting diagnoses from their local vets, who lived in parts of the world without access to trustworthy veterinarians, and who could not afford traditional veterinary care. No one has ever complained about his advice.
“It shouldn’t be illegal for a veterinarian to give veterinary advice,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “That includes advice given over the Internet. This case will help ensure that the Internet can be used to communicate expert advice better, faster and more cheaply than has ever been possible.”
In 2013, Dr. Hines 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. Texas did this without even an allegation that Ron harmed any animal.
Dr. Hines’ 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? The nation’s lower courts are conflicted, and although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that advice is speech, it has not applied that ruling in the context of occupational licensing and the Internet. Ultimately, this question will need to be answered by the Supreme Court.
“The court’s ruling sets a very high bar for Texas to justify its blanket ban on online veterinary advice,” said IJ-Texas Executive Director Matt Miller. “The court squarely rejected the government’s argument that these are merely restrictions on conduct, and recognized the law for what it is: a content-based restriction on speech. People don’t check their First Amendment rights at the door when they enter a licensed occupation.”
A victory in this lawsuit could unleash a revolution in the way information is shared across the U.S. and around the world. Dr. Hines’ challenge has implications for all speaking professions across the country, as well as the countless people worldwide who benefit from them.
For more on this lawsuit, visit www.ij.org/TXVetSpeech. Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.