Free Speech Challenge to Texas Veterinary Practice Act

State practice acts typically premise the lawful practice of veterinary medicine on a veterinarian-client-patient relationship established prior to treatment. In Texas, a valid relationship includes an examination of the animal. The Texas practice act also specifically prohibits the establishment of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship solely through telephone or electronic communications. (Only two other states, Mississippi and Utah, specifically prohibit establishment of a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship solely by telephone or electronic communications.)

Enforcement of the latter provision resulted in a federal lawsuit by Dr. Ronald Hines, a disabled Brownsville, Texas, veterinarian who claims that state restrictions on his ability to provide veterinary advice on the Internet about animals he never physically examined violates the guarantee of free speech in the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit, which names the members of the state Board of Veterinary Examiners as defendants, was filed in April after Hines was fined and suspended by the Board.

Hines established a website in 2002 to share articles he wrote about pet health and care. The complaint states that Hines “does not try to be a pet owner’s primary veterinarian” and he “does not prescribe medication.” He has discovered “that pets have been prescribed an inappropriate medication” or “have been prescribed the wrong dose of the correct medication.” The complaint alleges that “no one has complained to him or to the State Board about veterinary advice that he has provided via the Internet.”

The complaint concedes that Hines’ website activities constitute the practice of veterinary medicine as defined by Texas law, but argues that his Internet advice is free speech protected from government interference by the First Amendment. The complaint also argues that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment includes a “right to engage in one’s chosen profession without arbitrary and irrational interference,” and that restrictions on providing veterinary advice solely by electronic means, without a physical examination of the animal, serve only to protect “the financial interests of brick-and-mortar veterinary practices, which is not a legitimate government interest.”

The AVMA’s policy opposes paid media services, but does not specifically address free advice over the Internet: “The AVMA opposes any form of paid media services, such as, but not limited to, telephone or web-based services, offered to the public when the intent is to diagnose and/or treat animals in the absence of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. It is recognized that there are instances where general or specific information needs to be quickly accessed beyond the usual practice setting, such as consultation via phone with Poison Control Centers.

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