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Texas: Law requiring physical, not online examination of animals is valid

In a March 27 decision on telemedicine, a Texas appellate court upheld a state law that requires veterinarians to physically examine their patients before dispensing medical advice from a First Amendment speech challenge by a retired veterinarian who had been dispensing such advice over the internet (Hines v. Alldredge).

After veterinarian Ronald Hines retired in 2002, he began a veterinarian advice website that soon morphed into an ad hoc telemedicine practice. Although Hines reviewed veterinary records provided by owners, he nonetheless dispensed medical advice without a physical examination of the animals themselves.

Unfortunately for Hines, Texas law prohibits the remote practice of veterinary medicine unless a veterinarian has either first physically examined the animal or the premises on which it lives; the law explicitly prohibits telemedicine without this initial consultation.

When it learned of Hines’s activities, the board informed him that he had violated Texas law. Hines entered into a consent agreement with the board, which placed his license on probation with a temporary suspension and fined him $500, but he also filed suit against the board in federal court, claiming that the requirement of a physical examination violated his First Amendment free speech rights and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection Rights.

The court, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham, rejected Hines’s First Amendment argument, noting that the Texas law requiring a physical examination of an animal does not regulate the content of speech or require veterinarians to deliver any particular message.

The “narrow requirement” on speech that the physical examination requirement does impose, is, Higginbotham wrote, if anything, incidental to the requirement, and not in violation of the First Amendment.

The court also rejected Hines’s Fourteenth Amendment claims, ruling that, because the physical examination requirement was rational and does not restrict fundamental rights, the law was valid.