A Federal Appeals Court ruled this week that a Texas law prohibiting veterinarians from giving online advice without a physical examination of the animal may violate a veterinarian’s First Amendment rights. 

The ruling could potentially lead to a massive growth in veterinary telehealth appointments:

  • Expanding access to care for animals across the country and globe;
  • Expanding access to care for pets living with people of limited financial means by reducing costs for such care;
  • Allowing shelters to reduce the number of animals who are surrendered because of medical concerns by helping people resolve those concerns in a cost-effective way; and,
  • Improving the care of animals already in the shelter by expanding access for small to medium shelters who do not have onsite veterinarians.

In other words, millions of animals stand to benefit. 

The case stems from a Texas veterinarian who “gave online advice to pet owners… until the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners said his advice was illegal — not because it harmed an animal or was inaccurate, but because Texas prohibits veterinarians from sharing their expertise with pet owners without first examining their pets in person.” By contrast, Texas allows medical doctors to do tele-health appointments for people, arguing that it has improved access to care and thus improved overall care.

Attorneys for the veterinarian celebrated the ruling, calling it, “a win for literally billions of people around the world who, through the internet, have a cheap and simple way to get advice from an American professional that may be entirely unavailable in their own countries.”

Dr. Hines, the veterinarian who brought the lawsuit, called it, “less a decision about me than it is a decision about the future of all the much younger veterinarians out there who need the freedom to connect with pet owners and their pets in new, better, less expensive ways. That freedom to share good ideas is what the First Amendment is all about.”

The First Amendment is a powerful tool — perhaps the most powerful tool — in the fight to protect and save the lives of animals. Recently, a Federal Court ruled that a Kansas law making it illegal to film animal abuse on factory farms violates the First Amendment. The First Amendment also protects animals in pounds. A volunteer, rescuer, or any other member of the public not only has the First Amendment right to speak out against abuses and violations of law committed by a government shelter, he or she also has a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified.

In a victory for anyone who has spoken out on behalf of animals mistreated, abused, and killed in city pounds or elsewhere, moreover, three Federal Courts of Appeal ruled that public officials cannot censor comments or block individuals on their official social media pages for criticizing them and their policies.

And a California court rejected PETA’s argument that as an animal advocate, I was not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment when I gathered information to expose their killing, including the theft and killing of a family’s dog.

There were other victories. The No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization, forced the Mayor of Long Beach to cease violating the First Amendment rights of reformers by hiding Facebook comments critical of his handling of Long Beach Animal Care Services — an agency with low adoption and unacceptable levels of killing — from public view.

And a Pueblo City Councilmember tried, but failed thanks to the First Amendment, to intimidate citizens, reporters, and advocates of humane sheltering policies from challenging her on her defense of killing at the local pound.

Animals have no voice of their own and need others to speak for them. Regardless of whether it is a billion dollar company that profits on the abuse and killing of animals for food, a pound director who finds killing easier than doing the work necessary to stop it, an organization like PETA that rounds up to kill animals, elected officials engaging in conduct that undermines our humane values, or industry associations trying to prevent a veterinarian from expanding access to care and therefore improve the health of millions of animals around the globe, we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated into silence. The stakes are too high. The First Amendment gives us the protection we need to continue protecting animals.

In its ruling, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled its own 2013 precedent in a case brought by the same veterinarian. It did so because the U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that “occupational speech” regulated by licensure is not exempt from the First Amendment.

The ruling in Hines vs. Quillivan (Hines II) is here.

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