Austin, Tx.—Can the government silence and shut down licensed professionals for giving advice online?
That is the question to be answered by a major First Amendment lawsuit brought today by Dr. Ron Hines and the Institute for Justice (IJ). Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, this lawsuit seeks to eliminate obsolete regulatory barriers to the use of the Internet to provide expert advice. The outcome will have implications for medicine, law, psychology, financial advice, and many other occupations that often involve nothing but speech in the form of advice.
Dr. Ron 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 and sometimes for a $58 flat fee. He helps people who have conflicting diagnoses from their local vets, who live in parts of the world without access to trustworthy veterinarians, and who cannot afford traditional veterinary care. No one has ever complained about his advice.
Dr. Hines recently discovered, however, that he has been on a decade-long crime spree. In Texas, like in the 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 State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners 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.
“It shouldn’t be illegal for a veterinarian to give veterinary advice,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “Texas is using a 19th century regulatory model to suppress a 21st century technology. The Supreme Court has recognized that advice is protected speech, and this lawsuit is about ensuring that the Internet can be used to communicate professional advice better, faster, and more cheaply than has ever been possible.”
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 case or another like it will have to go to the United States Supreme Court.
“The First Amendment does not allow Texas to censor speech,” IJ-Texas Executive Director Matt Miller. “Government officials in Texas or any other state cannot make it a crime for people to share their own ideas online.”
A victory in today’s lawsuit could unleash a revolution in the way information is shared in the United States 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.
“This case is much bigger than me,” said Dr. Ron Hines. “I’m fighting for the right of all Americans to be able to freely and openly share their thoughts and advice online—and for pet owners to have access to the knowledge they need to best care for the animals they love.”
For more on today’s lawsuit, visit www.ij.org/TXVetSpeech. Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.