Veterinarian clears hurdle in battle for right to dispense advice online

A Texas-based veterinarian fighting for the right to dispense veterinary advice online cleared one hurdle with a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

According to the Gilmer Mirror, Ron Hines, DVM, Ph.D., has been challenging a Texas law prohibiting the dispensation of online veterinary advice. The Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners had sought to have Hines's challenge dismissed, but on Feb. 11, Senior Judge Hilda Tagle denied the board's request and ruled that Hines is protected by the First Amendment.

Tagle wrote in her ruling that, "In sum, the Court finds that the First Amendment applies to the professional regulations at issue in this case, and that the regulations, as applied to Hines's professional speech, are subject to heightened scrutiny."

The legal controversy began in 2013 when the Texas Veterinary Board took actions against Hines, a retired and physically disabled veterinarian, for offering online veterinary advice since 2002. According to the board, Hines was violating the Veterinary Licensing Act 801.351, which says "a veterinarian-client-patient relationship may not be established solely by telephone or electronic means."

The board suspended his license, fined him, and made him retake portions of the veterinary licensing exam, the Gilmer Mirror reported.

In April 2013, Hines explained in his defense that he never claimed or attempted to cure animals without physically being in their presence. Instead, he said he examines available information and records to give pet owners a clearer idea of their options.

"I don't claim to be able to cure an animal over the internet, or that I have any kind of clairvoyant powers," Hines said. "But I've done this so long that I kind of know statistically what occurs and I try to find them the nearest source of decent veterinary care and get them there."

After the board handed down the disciplinary actions, the Institute for Justice filed the current lawsuit on behalf of Hines arguing that his right to free speech should protect him while providing veterinary advice on the Internet.

"It shouldn't be illegal for a veterinarian to give veterinary advice. That includes advice given over the Internet," said Jeff Rowes, senior attorney for the Institute of Justice. "This case will help ensure that the Internet can be used to communicate expert advice better, faster, and more cheaply than has ever been possible."

Although the current case revolves around one veterinarian seeking to preserve his rights, a legal victory for Hines could set a precedent for other licensed professions that impose rules similar to those in Hines's case, said Institute of Justice Texas Executive Director Matt Miller.

"People don't check their First Amendment rights at the door when they enter a licensed occupation," Miller told the Gilmer Mirror.

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