Advice columnist John Rosemond sues Kentucky agency, claiming censorship

raretakis@herald-leader.comJuly 16, 2013 

John Rosemond

Parenting advice columnist John Rosemond filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Kentucky agency that licenses psychologists after it attempted to block publication of his nationally syndicated column in the state.

Rosemond and his attorneys claim that the Kentucky Board of Examiners of Psychology and Attorney General Jack Conway's office are violating his right to free speech by unlawfully attempting to censor his column, which pushes an anti-pampering approach to parenting.

"This is not about me; this is about the right of an American citizen to seek advice concerning issues or problems of living from whomever they choose," Rosemond said in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, one of more than 200 newspapers that publishes his weekly column.

An attorney in Conway's office, which represents the psychology board, issued a cease-and-desist affidavit to Rosemond in May, arguing that a column published Feb. 12 in the Herald-Leader "constituted the practice of psychology."

It is against Kentucky law to practice psychology without a state license, or to use the title "psychologist" without having a state license. Rosemond does not hold a Kentucky license, but he is a licensed psychological associate in North Carolina. He is routinely identified as a "family psychologist" in a note at the end of his columns.

The affidavit threatens legal action if Rosemond does not agree to stop offering psychological advice in Kentucky and stop calling himself a psychologist.

"Occupational licensing boards are the new censors," said Paul Sherman, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which is representing Rosemond. "They are aggressive, and they don't think the First Amendment applies to them."

Licensing boards in many states have taken similar actions in recent years, showing disregard for the rights of professionals to speak freely, Sherman said.

For example, the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, based in Arlington, Va., has filed a lawsuit on behalf of North Carolina blogger Steve Cooksey, who was told he could not offer advice about the low-carbohydrate Paleo diet because he was not a licensed dietician. It also represents Texas veterinarian Ron Hines, whose license was suspended after he offered advice online. The Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners said he broke the law because he did not establish a relationship with the patient before giving advice.

In Kentucky, the institute filed a lawsuit Tuesday afternoon on Rosemond's behalf, seeking a restraining order against the psychology board and a preliminary injunction to allow Rosemond to continue publishing his column until the lawsuit is resolved. Rosemond plans to hold a news conference at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday outside the federal courthouse in Lexington.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Conway's office directed questions about Rosemond to the Kentucky Board of Examiners of Psychology. Board administrator Robin Vick said the case remains open and that no final action has been taken.

Eva Markham, who chairs the Kentucky psychology board, told The Associated Press that the board's primary point of contention is that Rosemond refers to himself as a psychologist. She pointed out that the master's degree that backs his license in North Carolina would be insufficient in Kentucky.

"We don't care what he writes," Markham told The AP. "I see advice columns that are horrendously bad ... but we can't do a thing about it."

Still, she could not say for certain that the board, which meets Thursday, would accept the column if the concerns over Rosemond's title were resolved.

"I'd have to ask the board at this point," she said.

Without intervention by the court, Rosemond could face up to a year in jail and $1,000 in fines for each column published after Monday, which was the deadline for Rosemond to sign the cease-and-desist affidavit, Sherman said.

"John's column is simply advice, and advice is protected by the First Amendment," Sherman said.

Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak said the newspaper has published Rosemond for at least 30 years and has no plans to stop running his column, which appeared in Tuesday's newspaper.

"This is a free-speech issue," Baniak said. "The state should not be attempting to dictate what kind of column can or can't be printed in a newspaper."

The newspaper has not been contacted by any state officials regarding Rosemond's column, he said.

Jon Fleischaker, a First Amendment lawyer who represents the Kentucky Press Association, said the psychology board's actions have far-reaching ramifications that should worry anyone offering advice, from Dr. Phil to a friendly soccer mom.

"Does that mean I can't say to someone, 'I think you're doing this wrong with your kids'?" Fleischaker asked.

Rosemond's column answers questions dealing with "garden variety" parenting problems. His advice is drawn from his own experiences as a parent, he said, and does not follow the mainstream ideas of idealizing or romanticizing children.

In the Feb. 12 article, Rosemond offered advice to a reader seeking help with a 17-year-old son who was a "highly spoiled underachiever."

"As you now realize, your son is in dire need of a major wake-up call," Rosemond wrote. "Start by stripping his room to bare essentials, taking away any and all electronic devices, and suspending all of his privileges, including driving."

In February, retired Lexington clinical child psychologist T. Kerby Neill wrote a letter to the state psychology board complaining about Rosemond's "unprofessional and unethical" advice in the Feb. 12 article and asking the board to stop Rosemond from presenting himself as a psychologist in Kentucky.

"While Mr. Rosemond's suggestions might work very well, they could also create serious problems for the youth and the family in question," Neill wrote on Feb. 13.

He also sent a copy of the letter to the Herald-Leader and to Rosemond.

Rosemond, 65, is no stranger to criticism, but he said he is not aware of any instance when his advice caused harm in his 37 years of writing the column.

"Because I don't march to the beat of the party line, I am something of a lightning rod for controversy," he said.

Rosemond was reprimanded in 1988 by the North Carolina Psychology Board after he suggested that a child no longer needed therapy because it wasn't working.

In 1992, he ran afoul of the board again when he advised that an 18-month-old wouldn't need therapy to deal with sexual abuse because the child wouldn't remember the abuse. In that case, he signed a consent agreement with the North Carolina board to have his column reviewed before publication for three years by someone with a doctorate-level psychology degree.

"In both cases, I feel like I was giving good advice to people," Rosemond said Tuesday.

Rosemond said he voluntarily continued the supervision of his column until March 2013, when he decided it was no longer needed.

He received a master's degree in psychology from Western Illinois university in 1971 and was licensed by North Carolina in 1979.

He sees a limited number of patients, but he also travels frequently, giving speeches more than 100 times a year. Rosemond has authored 15 books in addition to his column, which is the longest-running single-author advice column in the country.

Rachel Aretakis: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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