U.S. top court rejects Texas veterinarian's pet-care advice case

The Supreme Court stands in Washington May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Jim Forsyth SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal filed by a retired Texas veterinarian who argued that a state law barring him from providing pet-care advice online and over the telephone violated his free-speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. Lower courts had ruled that Brownsville, Texas veterinarian Ron Hines, 72, broke a 2005 state law when he answered questions through an "Ask a Vet" link on his website. In 2013, the Texas Board of Veterinary Medicine, which regulates veterinary practices in the state, suspended his license for a year, finding he violated the law by providing "advice of a specific medical nature" without actually examining the animal. Attorney Matt Miller of the Austin office of the Institute for Justice, a public-interest legal group that represents Hines, said the high court's refusal to hear the case has the potential to restrict the fast-growing practice of telemedicine, the use of the Internet by medical doctors to diagnose patients. "There were no allegations that Ron Hines harmed any animals," Miller said. "All he was doing was talking to people over email and the telephone about their pets. That is protected free speech, and it is important for people to get this information," Miller said. Miller said only 5 percent of the people with whom Hines consulted were in Texas and within the Texas Board of Veterinary Medicine's jurisdiction. Miller said as many as half of them were in developing countries with little or no access to veterinarians. Texas law states that a veterinarian must conduct an examination of an animal before offering medical advice. In 2005, the Texas legislature expanded that restriction by passing a measure stating the examination could not be done electronically. Miller said that with medical practices becoming increasingly dependent upon new technology like the Internet, the justices have merely delayed an inevitable ruling on the matter. "This case is over, but there will be a next case," Miller said. "There will be future veterinarians, doctors, other professionals who will be facing these types of protectionist restrictions." Hines years ago discontinued his full-time veterinary practice. Texas Board of Veterinary Medicine officials were not immediately available for comment. (Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Will Dunham)