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Victory: California Eliminates Unconstitutional Law Criminalizing Teaching Trade Skills

Repeal is a win for free speech rights of apprentices and students alike

SACRAMENTO, CalifAfter more than four years of litigation, Bob Smith and Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School (PCHS) are free to return to teaching horseshoeing to students who have not completed high school or an equivalent government-mandated exam. Bob and PCHS, who were represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ) in a federal lawsuit to protect the First Amendment right to teach willing studentsmay again enroll students regardless of their educational status.

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“I’m excited that I will never again be forced to turn away someone simply because of their educational status,” Bob said. “Horseshoeing has nothing to do with calculuswriting or social studies. Horses don’t do math, and horses don’t read books. If you can shoe a horse, you can shoe a horse.” 

In 2017, Bob was informed that he was breaking the law. His crime? Teaching horseshoeing to paying students who had not completed high school, a GED, or a government exam. No state in the country prevents people from actually shoeing a horse, but California prevented Bob from teaching horseshoeing to certain students. Under California’s so-called “ability-to-benefit” law, schools like Bob’s couldn’t accept students who lacked a high-school degree or a GED (or who had passed a government-approved examination).

Both teaching and learning are protected by the First Amendment. That doesn’t change just because someone pays to learn or gets paid to teach. If Bob were to write a book or record a YouTube video on horseshoeing, the State of California couldn’t punish him. Teaching a group of tuition-paying students is no different. To protect his First Amendment rights, as well as the rights of his students, Bob and PCHS partnered with IJ and challenged the law.

“For too long, governments have claimed that so-called ‘occupational speech’ isn’t protected by the Constitution,” said Paul Avelar, Managing Attorney of IJ’s Arizona Office. “But speech is speech, regardless of where it’s said, who says it, or if is their job to say it. What Bob—and millions of other Americans who sell their advice and teaching—does is clearly protected by the First Amendment.”

In June 2020, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that California’s law burdened the First Amendment rights of both Bob and his students. Following that decision, the case was sent back to the federal trial court in Sacramento, where the state would have been required to prove that its law could survive First Amendment scrutiny. 

Then, in September 2021, the California Assembly passed a bill that repealed the “ability-to-benefit” requirement. That change will go into effect on Jan. 1. Going forward, schools like Bob’s can admit students regardless of their level of education or their score on a state exam.

“California’s law made it illegal to teach job skills to those who need them most,” said IJ Attorney Keith Diggs. “Trade schools provide a fantastic opportunity for people without a formal education to learn a skill that will allow them to start a career and provide for themselves. Not only was California’s law unconstitutional, it also hurt the very people it was supposed to help.”

IJ is the nation’s leading law firm defending the free speech rights and economic liberty of individuals. Those cases have included defending the right of a North Carolina engineer to speak freely about engineering, supporting a therapist’s right to speak with patients across state lines, and challenging occupational licensing laws that created arbitrary barriers for eyebrow threaders in Texas.

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