For licensing boards to effectively regulate who can become a practitioner in their field, they have, to some extent, the ability to determine what economic activity falls under their jurisdiction.
Determining not only who gets to join a licensed profession, but also what businesses fall under the umbrella of the licensing board, has serious consequences for innovative businesses with business models different from other licensed practitioners (or anything else that has come before, for that matter.)
This is the case of Vizaline, a Mississippi-based company that uses publicly available data to draw lines on satellite images to help banks “visualize” properties they invest in. Despite the fact that Vizaline does not “draw” these lines, the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Surveyors sees the upstart company’s business model as a direct competitor to its members.
Brent Melton and Scott Dow, Vizaline’s co-founders, explain the Board’s actions against them in an op-ed for the Clarion Ledger.
Vizaline uses publicly available data — legal descriptions written into deeds — to draw lines on satellite photos for banks. Surveyors create those legal descriptions through surveys, but we don’t do surveys or create those descriptions. We’re not surveyors. Nevertheless, the board has sued us, accusing us of “unlicensed surveying,” and wants the court to force us to shut down and make us give up all the money we’ve earned, likely bankrupting the company.
The board, which is made up of only licensed surveyors and engineers, is twisting Mississippi’s surveying laws. You don’t need the government’s permission to use existing information to create new information and sell it to willing customers. And we shouldn’t be forced to return money to satisfied customers who have never complained about Vizaline’s services.
Previous instances of licensing boards moving to shut down competition perceived as moving in on their turf, as the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners unsuccessfully tried to do in 2015, generally involve businesses that are somewhat related to the licensed profession in question (e.g. mall teeth cleaners and dentists both provide teeth whitening services).
Vizaline, on the other hand, isn’t involved in the actual drawing of the lines by surveyors. As Melton and Dow argue,
Using public data to draw lines on satellite photos is not surveying, it is free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that generating and disseminating information to advise clients — even for pay —is speech protected by the First Amendment. The board cannot stop our business from speaking just because it sees us as potential competition.
Previous litigation related to licensing tour guides in Washington, DC found the licensing requirements unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. It’s unclear what path Vizaline or the Surveyors Board will take going forward, but hopefully precedent on these issues will inform a court decision in their favor if it comes to that.