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Vet Fined & Barred for Talking About Animals

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) - The Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners unconstitutionally suspended a 69-year-old veterinarian for giving free advice on the Internet, the longtime vet claims in Federal Court.

Ronald V. Hines, D.V.M., sued the nine members of the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners in Federal Court.

He challenges their rule that bars him from giving advice to owners via his website without first physically examining their pets.

"It should not be illegal for veterinarians to give veterinary advice," Hines says in the complaint. "This First Amendment challenge seeks to vindicate the free-speech rights of plaintiff Dr. Ronald Hines, a 69-year-old, Texas-licensed veterinarian. Since 2002, Dr. Hines has provided-for free and for a nominal fee-veterinary advice to pet owners across the country and around the world. For many of these pet owners, Dr. Hines is the only realistic option. Despite his good works and the absence of even an allegation that his advice has harmed any animal, the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners suspended his license, fined him, and forced him to retake the jurisprudence portion of the veterinary licensing exam because Texas law forbids a veterinarian from giving advice unless he or she has first physically examined the animal. The State Board's actions violate the First Amendment because the Board cannot carry its burden of proving that silencing Dr. Hines is a necessary and appropriately tailored way to advance Texas's interests."

Hines says he "is the sole owner of, and sole writer for, a website called www.2ndchance.info, which he uses as a portal for providing veterinary information and advice."

Hines says the defendants disciplined him after he had run the website for 10 years.

"Dr. Hines was astonished to learn that he had been breaking the law by helping hundreds of pet owners across the country and around the world through his website," the complaint states. "Dr. Hines immediately stopped providing veterinary advice via electronic means because he feared punishment."

Hines says he launched his website in February 2002, to post his articles about pet health and health care after retiring as a practicing vet.

"Since launching his website, he has posted over two hundred articles, all of which he makes available to the world for free. His only restriction is that others may not re-post his articles on other websites without his consent because he does not want to be construed by association as endorsing any website or any particular approach to veterinary medicine," the complaint states.

Soon after he launched his website he was flooded with emails from pet owners around the world seeking his advice about particular animals, Hines says.

"Dr. Hines quickly decided to use his website not only to disseminate his articles to the general public, but also to provide veterinary advice to specific pet owners about their pets," the complaint states.

"This veterinary advice - which usually begins with email and may include telephone calls - between Dr. Hines and his readers about their respective animals not only provides advice to the animal owners, but also gives Dr. Hines useful feedback on his general articles, enabling him to improve them, which he does on a regular basis. This communication also allows Dr. Hines to write new articles to fulfill the unmet needs of his readers."

Hines says he added a PayPal button to his website in 2003 so he could charge a flat fee of $8.95 fee for his advice. In September 2011 he raised the fee to $58.

"When it appears to him that his fee is a burden to someone in need, he refunds it and charges nothing. Dr. Hines tries to provide help to everyone who writes him, whether they can pay or not," the complaint states.

"Dr. Hines had gross income from his website of $2,797.24 in 2011. This was all he made despite devoting most of his time to correspondence with animal owners across the country and around the world."

To the best of his knowledge, Hines says, no one has ever complained to him or to the State Board about his advice.

"Dr. Hines estimates that 5 percent or less of the pet owners with whom he communicates and to whom he offers veterinary advice are residents of Texas," the complaint states. "Forty-five percent are residents of the United States outside of Texas and the remainder are residents of foreign countries.

"The pet owners whom Dr. Hines helps who are not residents of Texas, have no connection at all with Texas, and their animals have no connection with Texas."

Hines says the Texas law is unfair to sick animals and their desperate owners.

"The Texas Veterinary Licensing Act does not make any exception to the requirement of a recent physical examination for veterinary advice offered by Texas-licensed veterinarians in contexts in which there is no realistic alternative to the sort of online veterinary advice that Dr. Hines provides, such as when a pet owner has no access to veterinary care or cannot afford it," the complaint states.

"For example, if a pet owner in Africa asks Dr. Hines for advice via the Internet because there is no ability to obtain qualified veterinary advice locally, the Texas Veterinary Licensing Act requires that pet owner and that pet to go entirely without veterinary care rather than be able to consult Dr. Hines."

Not only that, Hines claims: "Veterinarians across Texas and the United States routinely offer veterinary advice solely via electronic means without ever having performed a physical examination of the animal in question.

"For example, in Austin, Texas, where the State Board is located, the morning show on the local Fox television station has a regular segment featuring a Texas-licensed veterinarian who takes calls from viewers and offers veterinary advice about their pets in a manner that is materially indistinguishable from what Dr. Hines has been doing with his website."

His complaint includes 18 websites that provide veterinarian advice without a recent physical exam.

Hines wants to resume offering veterinary advice through his website when his license suspension ends on March 26, 2014.

He claims the defendants violate his First and 14th Amendment rights, and wants the pertinent sections of the Texas Occupational and Administrative Codes declared unconstitutional and their enforcement enjoined.

He is represented by Jeff Rowes with the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va. and Matthew Muller with the institute's Texas chapter in Austin.

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