Institute for Justice · December 2, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas—Today, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that restricting the online pet advice of Brownsville, Texas, veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines implicated his First Amendment rights, reversing a lower court ruling that occupational speech is not protected by the First Amendment. Dr. Hines now has the opportunity to go back down to the trial court and prove the First Amendment violation. Today’s decision has broad implications for other professionals who want to meet virtually with clients, especially in the midst of COVID-19.

Dr. Hines gave online advice to pet owners all across the world from 2002 to 2012, until the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners said 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. Dr. Hines teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) in 2013 to challenge that restriction but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that his advice was regulated by occupational licensure and hence not protected by the First Amendment. After a landmark 2018 Supreme Court decision (NIFLA v. Becerra) rejected the so-called “professional speech doctrine,” which excluded occupational speech from the First Amendment, Dr. Hines again partnered with IJ in 2018 to vindicate his right to free speech. Today’s ruling enshrines constitutional protection to Americans who want to give advice online without being punished for it.

IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes said: “Today’s decision is the latest in a unanimous string of federal appellate decisions ruling that the First Amendment protects the occupational speech of workers just as it protects other kinds of speech. Spurred by the pandemic, more and more people are serving their clients online and their ability to give advice may be hampered by occupational licensing laws. Just as Dr. Hines’ speech with pet owners is protected by the First Amendment, so too is the speech of others like doctors and psychologists.”

“The viability of tele-practice in many occupations depends on First Amendment protection for speech. Dr. Hines’ win is a victory for all Americans who want to seek or give advice online,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward, who also represents Dr. Hines. “It is also a win for literally billions of people around the world who, through the internet, have a cheap and simple way to get advice from an American professional that may be entirely unavailable in their own countries.”

After a disability made physical practice too difficult, Dr. Hines spent a decade of his retirement giving online advice to pet owners around the world. For most pet owners he advised, traditional veterinary clinics were not a realistic option. Dr. Hines charged little to nothing, and there was no evidence that animals were anything other than benefitted. Nonetheless, the Texas veterinary board suspended Dr. Hines’ license, fined him and forced him to stop giving life-saving advice. The 5th Circuit then ruled against him in his initial lawsuit. Since then, however, major developments in First Amendment law prompted Dr. Hines to renew his lawsuit.

“This is less a decision about me than it is a decision about the future of all the much younger veterinarians out there who need the freedom to connect with pet owners and their pets in new, better, less expensive ways. That freedom to share good ideas is what the First Amendment is all about,” said Dr. Hines.