A federal judge in Texas has ruled in favor of Dr. Ron Hines, a veterinarian whose license was suspended for giving pet owners online advice about their pets. The ruling potentially clears the way for professionals around the country to provide information and advice -- free or for a fee -- via the Internet.
“It shouldn’t be illegal for a veterinarian to give veterinary advice,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes, who represented Hines. “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 her ruling, Senior Judge Hilda Tagle wrote 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[.]”
Hines, 69, has used the Internet since 2002 to help pet owners, often for free. On his website, 2ndChance.info, he has 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.
As far as is known, no one has complained about his advice. But in 2013, the Texas Veterinary Board shut Hines down, suspended his license, fined him and made him retake portions of the veterinary licensing exam.
Why? It turns out that 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.
Limits on state power
Hines’ case raises a First Amendment conflict that has never been clearly resolved -- namely, does the government's power to license occupations trump free speech?
Although it will take a Supreme Court decision to settle the question once and for all, the Texas ruling is, for now, precedent-setting.
“The court’s ruling sets a very high bar for Texas to justify its blanket ban on online veterinary advice,” said Institute for Justice-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, an Institute for Justice spokesman said.
The Institute for Justice is a libertarian public-interest law firm headquartered in Arlington, Va.