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Imagine you live somewhere far from traditional services, and have a sick pet. And imagine there is an experienced veterinarian -- one that had received a Health Service Commendation Medal from the Surgeon of the United States, in fact -- available to answer your questions about your sick pet online. That's pretty great, right?
Now imagine that the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners says this vet's advice is illegal, suspended his license, and fines him $500. Not so great, right? That's why Ronald Hines, a 75-year-old veterinarian in Brownsville who's been diagnosing pet ailments via his website for the past 10 years, is now filing his second lawsuit against the Board, claiming his online pet advice is protected speech under the First Amendment.
But will this challenge be more successful than the last?
Professional Speech and Protected Speech
Dr. Hines first filed a free speech lawsuit in 2013, arguing that a Texas law prohibiting veterinarians from sharing their expertise with pet owners without first examining their pets in person violated the First Amendment. The vet retired from the Public Health Service in 1979 based on a disability, and effectively retired from active practice in 2002, when he started posting general articles that he had written about pet health and pet care to his website, www.2ndchance.info. But the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in that case ruled that individualized professional advice is the equivalent of occupational conduct like welding or surgery, and therefore, First Amendment protections did not apply.
While the Supreme Court refused to review that decision, it did deliver a ruling in another case with a different stance on "professional speech" just this year: "[T]his Court has not recognized 'professional speech' as a separate category of speech," the Court held. "Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by 'professionals.'" Dr. Hines is relying on this more recent ruling as precedent to reverse the outcome of his first lawsuit.
Pets or People?
Dr. Hines' lawsuit also points out that Texas law allows doctors to "engage in telemedicine with human patients without any in-person physical examination or preexisting relationship," and also authorizes doctors to "write prescriptions based solely on a telemedical interaction and without any in-person physical examination." Having higher standards for pet doctors than human doctors does seem a little odd, but this may not be determinative in this case.
You can see the good vet's full lawsuit right here: