Need a License to Speak Your Mind?

Need a license to perform your chosen occupation? More and more Americans do. While licensing has long been a requirement for doctors and lawyers, it has spread far wider – licensing is up 5-fold in the last 50 years or so, and around 25% of us work in professions where a license is required.

I’m not going to get into all of the reasons why this spread of licensing is counterproductive, read this Brookings Institute report if you want to dig deeper. Rather, I’m interested in how the spread of licensing is speeding toward a collision with the First Amendment – a collision that will likely change how we think about what’s included within the monopoly our legal licenses grant us.

The tension between occupational licensing and free speech rights is particularly fraught for lawyers, as so much of what we do involves verbal and written expression. But outside of lawyer advertising, there’s been next to no guidance from the courts about the limits of regulators to compel or prohibit the speech of lawyers.

Or the speech of any licensed profession, for that matter.

But with so many occupations now being licensed, and so many regulators imposing and enforcing rules, the Supreme Court’s opportunity to take this issue on may be fast approaching. Recently, we’ve had psychologists told that they couldn’t write newspaper columns, veterinarians told they couldn’t give advice online, and mathematicians told they couldn’t . . . math.

Oh, and Florida doctors have only just recently fought back efforts to restrict their ability to ask patients about guns in the home, and California now requires pregnancy counseling offices to provide government-mandated information about abortion services.

So, lots of efforts abound to restrict professional speech. But what do we know about the acceptable limits of professional speech regulation? Precious little. There’s Justice Byron White’s concurrence in the 1985 case of Lowe v. S.E.C.and some lower court cases. My best guess from these cases is that professional speech regulation requires something in the neighborhood of the “intermediate scrutiny” review that applies to commercial speech.

But there may end up being a difference for regulation of those who aren’t licensed. It’s one thing for regulators to restrict the regulated, but what gives them the right to tell the rest of us what we can and cannot say?

Watch this; it has major implications for the monopoly that lawyers have on providing legal advice. After all, legal advice is just someone expressing their opinion. It’s hard to see what rationale exists for restricting such opinions to lawyers.

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