Veterinarian Sues Texas for the Right to Practice Online

(Courthouse News photo by Robert Kahn.)

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) —  A Texas veterinarian claims in court that a state law prohibiting him from giving pet owners advice on the internet is unconstitutional, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the First Amendment.

For more than 10 years, Ronald Hines, a 75-year-old veterinarian in Brownsville, charged a small fee for diagnosing pets’ ailments through his website www.2ndchance.info.

But the Texas veterinary board ordered him to stop practicing online in 2012, suspended his license for a year and fined him $500, based on a state law that bars the practice of veterinary medicine unless the vet has physically examined the animal.

Hines in April 2013 sued the nine members of the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners in Brownsville Federal Court, where a judge found he may have a First Amendment claim.

But the Fifth Circuit rejected his claims. It found the First Amendment did not apply because the Texas law dictates occupational conduct; it does not regulate the content of speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case in December 2015.

However, buoyed by a new First Amendment ruling by the high court, Hines refiled his lawsuit Tuesday in Brownsville. As in his first complaint, he is represented by the Institute of Justice, a Virginia-based nonprofit.

In National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled in June that a California law forcing pro-life pregnancy centers to notify clients about the state’s abortion services violated their free-speech rights, and that the speech of professionals, even those who must obtain a license, is protected by the First Amendment.

“Based on the outcome-determinative change in free-speech law established by NIFLA, Dr. Hines now brings this second free-speech lawsuit challenging the State Board’s continuing suppression of his individualized veterinary advice — a fully protected form of speech,” Hines’ new lawsuit states.

Hines says that most of his former clients live in foreign countries and many did not have access to veterinary care, or could not afford it.

For example, he says, a married couple who went to rural Nigeria to help AIDS patients, and took their cat with them, turned to him for online advice because they could not find a qualified vet.

“Without Dr. Hines, or someone like him who could provide qualified veterinary advice online, this couple’s family pet would not have had veterinary care,” the complaint states.

A double-leg amputee in New Hampshire could not afford conventional veterinary care for his dog, so Hines says he advised the man as much as he could online. But when it became clear the dog needed to see a vet, Hines referred him to one willing to provide free care.

Besides, Hines says, Texas now has a double standard for telemedicine for humans and animals.

The state passed a law in 2017 authorizing doctors to consult with patients online via webcams without examining them in person.

Hines seeks a declaration that Texas’ ban on veterinary telemedicine is unconstitutional and an injunction against its enforcement.

Hines told Courthouse News in 2015 that Texas is fighting a losing battle.

“Telemedicine is inevitable,” he said. “Change is inevitable. People are going to be using the Internet to discuss their pets, lives, health and other important subjects.”

The Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners’ staff attorney said it does not comment on pending litigation.

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