BROWNSVILLE, Texas—Thursday afternoon, Brownsville, Texas, veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines scored an important First Amendment win when the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled that Texas must satisfy the Constitution’s most demanding free-speech standard if it wants to restrict what Dr. Hines may say to pet owners. Dr. Hines gave online advice to pet owners across the world for a decade 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. Thursday’s ruling means that Dr. Hines’ free speech challenge, brought with the Institute for Justice (IJ), can proceed.
“Today’s decision recognizing that Dr. Hines’ advice is entitled to the greatest constitutional protection is the latest milestone in a long fight in which, for years, courts insisted that he had no First Amendment rights at all. Giving advice online is speech protected by the First Amendment,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “Especially in the wake of the pandemic, more and more people are serving their clients online. 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. Dr. Hines’ victory here will protect not only him and other vets, but people across the country who speak for a living and find themselves targeted by government licensing boards.”
Dr. Hines first teamed up with IJ in 2013 to challenge Texas’ requirement that he first examine an animal in person before giving any kind of advice that pet owners around the world sought from him. 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.
In 2020, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that occupational speech is protected by the First Amendment, then sent Dr. Hines’ challenge down to the trial court to assess whether Dr. Hines’ advice counted as “speech” or “conduct.” Unsurprisingly, the court agreed with Dr. Hines’ position that advice is speech. Now, Dr. Hines will have the opportunity for the court to declare once and for all that his First Amendment rights were violated.
“A victory for Dr. Hines is a victory for all Americans who want to seek or give advice online,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward, who also represents Dr. Hines.
The case will now proceed to the “discovery” phase, and, ultimately, a final judgment.