Occupational Licensing

Giving Advice Is Not a Crime

But over-regulation makes it one.


Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the "Car Talk" guys, offer advice on the radio and in more than 300 newspapers across the country. For such a heinous crime, perhaps they should go to prison.

This is the logical extension of a letter Kentucky officials sent to John Rosemond a couple months ago. Rosemond is a family psychologist who writes the longest-running advice column by a single author in the United States; his column appears in more than 200 papers, including the Lexington Herald-Leader.  (It once appeared in The Times-Dispatch.) Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway and the Kentucky Board of Examiners of Psychology contend that publication of Rosemond's column in Kentuckyamounts to the illegal practice of psychology because Rosemond – who is licensed as a psychologist in North Carolina – is not licensed in their state.

Conway and the Board have threatened legal action, which carries the possibility of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Per column.

Rosemond has sued, with the help of the Arlington-based Institute for Justice – which notes that byKentucky's reasoning, "it is a crime to say things that are 100 percent true ('I am a family psychologist') and a crime to express an opinion in a newspaper without government permission."

Conway and the Kentucky Board have not threatened the Herald-Leader. Yet.  But if Rosemond is committing a crime, then the newspaper is aiding and abetting. Without its megaphone, Rosemond's voice would go almost entirely unheard.

The same holds true for, say, Dr. Phil. As the Institute for Justice points out, if Kentucky can prohibit Rosemond from offering advice in the newspaper then "it could prohibit Dr. Phil from identifying himself as a psychologist in books offered for sale in Kentucky or ban the Dr. Phil show from being broadcast in Kentucky."

Kentucky does not license auto mechanics, but some other states do. By Kentucky's reasoning, the Magliozzis – Click and Clack – are committing the same sort of violation Rosemond ostensibly is. Many other advice columns and shows offer tips on gardening, dieting, animal care, and other activities whose professional practitioners are regulated by the states. (Nationwide, more than 100 occupations are licensed by some or all of the 50 states; roughly a third of Americans hold jobs that need a government license, up from 5 percent a half-century ago.) Here at the Times-Dispatch, health reporter Tammie Smith sometimes answers reader questions on issues such as how much water one should drink. Though she has a master's degree in public health and consults with doctors on her answers, she is not a physician. By Kentucky's reasoning, she's practicing medicine without a license.

On Thursday the Bluegrass State appeared to climb down – but only a bit. Eva Markham, the chairman of the psychology board, snippily told "CBS This Morning" she thought it was "fascinating that this has turned into the First Amendment."

Turned into? It was never anything but.

Rosemond "can say anything he wants to as long as he is clear that he is not a psychologist in Kentucky," Markham says – now. But that's not what the letter from AG Jack Conway said when it ordered him to cease and desist. To pretend otherwise now, says IJ's Paul Sherman, is reminiscent of the schoolyard bully who "pick[s] on the little guy until someone shows up to defend him, and then . . . act[s] like nothing happened."

Were this an isolated instance, it might not merit much attention. But it is not isolated. The Institute for Justice also has defended a North Carolina blogger whose dietary advice offended the state's Board of Dietetics, and a Texas veterinarian whose online advice drew the attention of the Lone Star State's veterinary board.  (The boards didn't suggest the advice offered was dangerous, fraudulent, or even wrong – they simply objected on bureaucratic grounds.)

Local and state governments use more than occupational-licensing regulations to silence free speech. Across the country, cities and counties – including Richmond, Henrico, and Charlottesville – have used public-safety fig leaves to prohibit panhandling. Public colleges and universities designate First Amendment ghettos they call "free-speech zones," and impose speech codes that make even racy jokes off-limits. Politicians and campaign-finance "reformers" have banned in the past, and hope to ban again one day, political speech about political candidates by private citizens.

Even signs seem to fall afoul of government censors: Not only is Norfolk, Virginia, trying to seize the property of Central Radio, it has declared the protest sign put up by the company's owner verboten. Norfolk's signage ordinance is 11,000 words long. That makes it 10,955 words longer than the First Amendment, which plainly states that government shall abridge neither the freedom of speech, nor of the press. Period.

Kentucky officials trying to tell Rosemond what he can say in the newspaper  should familiarize themselves with it. That seems like good advice, wouldn't you say?

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.