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Kentucky psychology board targets advice columnist. Free speech violation?

Lawyers for the syndicated advice columnist say his federal lawsuit against Kentucky gets to the heart of free speech rights and whether they can be trumped by occupational licensing laws.

By Staff writer / July 17, 2013

This photo provided by the Institute for Justice shows syndicated parenting columnist John Rosemond. A Virginia-based legal institute is filing a federal lawsuit on behalf of Rosemond who says the state of Kentucky is trying to censor him.

Institute for Justice/AP

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When John Rosemond answered some parents’ query about how to handle their “highly spoiled underachiever” son in his syndicated parenting advice column, he thought it was fairly routine.

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But the column – in which he advised the parents to strip the boy’s room down to essentials, take away electronic devices, and suspend privileges until he could start improving his grades – caused a small firestorm in Kentucky that he didn’t anticipate.

The issue, according to the Kentucky Board of Examiners of Psychology, is that by offering such one-on-one advice, Mr. Rosemond is engaging in the “practice of psychology” – something he is not entitled to do in the state since he lacks a Kentucky license. The board also objected to the newspaper identifying Rosemond as a family psychologist, since his North Carolina credentials don’t apply in Kentucky.

Now Rosemond has filed a lawsuit in federal court to bar Kentucky from taking such action against him. The case, says his lawyers, has implications far beyond Rosemond’s parenting column, but gets to the heart of free speech rights and whether they can be trumped by occupational licensing laws.

“This case is about censorship. If one thing is clear under the US Constitution, it’s that the government can’t censor opinions in a newspaper,” says Jeff Rowes, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice, which has taken on Rosemond’s case and several related ones. “Occupational licensing laws are the new censors. They’re aggressive, and they don’t think the First Amendment applies to them.”

Mr. Rowes cites several other cases that the Institute for Justice is also handling, including a North Carolina blogger who advised people to follow a “paleo” diet and was ordered to stop by a state board because he lacked a dietician license, and a Texas veterinarian who was ordered to stop offering online advice to people in areas without access to good vets, because he hadn’t performed an in-person examination of the animals.

It’s an area of the law, says Rowes, that isn’t well developed, and that’s becoming more important in the Internet age, when advice is offered – often at a distance – to an unprecedented degree.

Kerby Neill, a retired child psychologist in Kentucky and editor of the book “Helping Others Help Children,” sees the issue differently. Dr. Neill was the person who initially objected to the column and brought his concerns to the state board – though his issue, he says, wasn’t with Rosemond offering advice, but with doing so while wearing the hat of “psychologist,” without knowing much at all about the family he was giving the advice to.

“If I was a physician, and I got a letter from someone I didn’t know, asking me to help them with an issue they described in cursory fashion in a letter, and I sent them a prescription for a medicine that had disastrous results, I would be hard-pressed to use free speech to justify what I’ve done,” says Neill. “He does not know if this child is on drugs, if the child is clinically depressed, if the child will respond to this advice by becoming suicidal.… If he writes that advice and calls himself a bar of soap I’ve got no problem. But if he writes that advice and calls himself a psychologist, that’s different.”

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