In a serious setback for the speech of ordinary Americans, yesterday, November 30, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a challenge to a Texas law making it illegal for veterinarians to give advice over the Internet or telephone without first conducting a physical examination of the animal. Dr. Ron Hines, a Texas veterinarian, teamed up with the Institute for Justice to challenge the law in 2013 after his license was suspended for simply talking to pet owners about their pets over email. In 2014, a federal trial court in Brownsville, Texas ruled that veterinary advice was speech within the First Amendment. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in March 2015. That decision will stand.
“The First Amendment status of occupational speech has profound implications for veterinarians, doctors, psychologists and others across the country,” said Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Particularly with the explosive growth of telemedicine, the Supreme Court must eventually address whether occupational speech is protected by the First Amendment.
“Even though we lost in court, this case has generated a lot of attention for this issue. Telemedicine is inevitable. Change is inevitable,” said Dr. Hines. “People are going to be using the Internet to discuss their pets, lives, health and other important subjects. Ultimately, legislatures aren’t going to be able to stop it.”
“These kinds of laws prevent millions of professionals from sharing valuable information with consumers who need to hear what they have to say,” said Matt Miller, managing attorney for the Institute for Justice’s Texas Office. “Ron Hines is a licensed veterinarian. He is certainly qualified to talk to people about animals. This law only does one thing: protect brick-and-mortar veterinarians from telemedicine.”
This challenge is part of the Institute for Justice’s nationwide defense of occupational speech. In recent years, licensing authorities in cities and states across the country have increasingly attempted to regulate people who simply communicate for a living, including attempts to prohibit speech ranging from parenting advice, to diet bloggers and tour guides.
“Millions of people across the country speak for a living,” said Rowes. “The rights of all of these people will remain uncertain until the Supreme Court settles the disagreement among the federal courts over the First Amendment status of occupational speech.”