Kentucky Psychology Board vs. the First Amendment. Oh My!

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (aka Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger

John Rosemond syndicated columnist psychologist
John Rosemond

Kentucky Psychology Board SealSixty-five year old North Carolina family therapist John Rosemond was having a day much like any other day last May, until he opened the certified letter from the Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In a Cease and Desist letter, the Kentucky Attorney General advised him the Kentucky psychology licensing board had determined that by publishing an advice column in the Louisville Herald-Leader, he was practicing psychology without a license. The letter warned him that if he did not cease and desist, he faces criminal penalties which includes both fines and jail time. The Attorney General thoughtfully enclosed an affidavit which John was to sign and return, promising that he would forever give up his life of crime.

You read that right. John Rosemond, syndicated columnist, is being threatened by the Commonwealth of Kentucky that he might face stiff fines and jail unless he stopped writing his advice column in Kentucky newspapers. Naturally, John did what any self-respecting reporter or columnist would do. He got a lawyer. He contacted Jeff Rowes of the Institute for Justice who agreed to take the case, and last July 16, Mr. Rowes and local counsel, Richard Brueggeman, Esq., filed a 45-page lawsuit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.

By way of background, John Rosemond has a Master’s Degree in psychology, and is licensed to practice in North Carolina as a master’s level psychologist. He still sees a few clients, but most of his time is spent writing and speaking engagements. He has been writing an advice column for 35 years, making him one of the longest running newspaper columnists in the country. His column appears in about 225 newspapers. He has written numerous books on families and parenting. Mercifully, he has given up his gig as the lead singer in a rock band; however, he did open for REO Speedwagon. That was a long time ago.

As events have unfolded, it was discovered that last February, a retired Kentucky psychologist, Dr. Thomas Kerby Neill, wrote a letter to the psychology licensing board, complaining about the advice Mr. Rosemond had given in his advice column, questioning his credentials, and accusing him of practicing psychology in Kentucky without a license. Dr. Neill did not contact Mr. Rosemond before filing the complaint, which is itself problematical, because the Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct of the American Psychological Association states:

Ҥ 1.04 Informal Resolution of Ethical Violations

When psychologists believe that there may have been an ethical violation by another psychologist, they attempt to resolve the issue by bringing it to the attention of that individual….”

When reading Dr. Neill’s complaint, it is clear that he does not approve of the content of the newspaper column as well. In fact, when reading the letter, it not a stretch to interpret that as the underlying reason for writing the letter in the first place. Dr. Neill is concerned about advice he does not agree with as a child psychologist. In other words, it is not only the sig line, but content of the column as well. Dr. Neill writes, in part:

 “…General advice on parenting is very different than specific advice regarding an individual child. I am enclosing a recent example that in my estimation is particularly out-of-line (Lexington Herald-Leader, February 12, 2013). While Mr. Rosemond’s suggestions might work very well, they could also create serious problems for the youth and the family in question…”

Because John Rosemond did not meekly sign the affidavit and is fighting back, there has been what appears to be serious efforts at damage control. Attorney General Jack Conway, on whose letterhead Assistant Attorney General Brian Judy had written to John Rosemond, says this blindsided him, and he did not authorize the letter to be sent out over his name. According to Mr. Conway, when Brian Judy wrote the letter he was not acting as an agent for the Attorney General. Because of this development, plaintiff’s attorneys filed an agreed order severing Jack Conway from the lawsuit with prejudice. But never fear, there are plenty of defendants left, including all the members of the psychology licensing board. The complaint and exhibits, including Dr. Neill’s letter, are at the link below.

Complaint & Exhibits (PDF)

The psychology board has backtracked, now saying all they want is for Mr. Rosemond to stop using his professional title in the small bio attached to his newspaper column. I have talked to both Messrs. Rowes and Rosemond, and they are not backing down. There will be no affidavit. As John put to me, “Why should I not say I am a psychologist? That’s who I am.”

And we might add, he first started practicing in 1971.

This action by the Kentucky psychology licensing board will have far-reaching implications if they prevail in court. Most psychology licensing laws, like other licensed professions, does not only protect the title, but defines practice as well. This is the definition of the protected practice of psychology in Kentucky:


§ (7) “Practice of psychology” means rendering to individuals, groups, organizations, or the public any psychological service involving the application of principles, methods, and procedures of understanding, predicting, and influencing behavior, such as the principles pertaining to learning, perception, motivation, thinking, emotions, and interpersonal relationships; the methods and procedures of interviewing, counseling, and psychotherapy; and psychological testing in constructing, administering, and interpreting tests of mental abilities, aptitudes, interests, attitudes, personality characteristics, emotion, and motivation. The application of said principles in testing, evaluation, treatment, use of psychotherapeutic techniques, and other methods includes, but is not limited to: diagnosis, prevention, and amelioration of adjustment problems and emotional, mental, nervous, and addictive disorders and mental health conditions of individuals and groups; educational and vocational counseling; the evaluation and planning for effective work and learning situations; and the resolution of interpersonal and social conflicts;

§ (8) “Psychotherapy” means the use of learning, conditioning methods, and emotional reactions, in a professional relationship, to assist a person or persons to modify feelings, attitudes, and behavior which are intellectually, socially, or emotionally maladjustive or ineffectual…”

That law covers a lot of territory with regard to defining not only the title, but behaviors as well. Thus, even if someone does not call themselves a psychologist (or whatever), they could still be vulnerable. For instance, some states are reportedly giving pastoral counselors a hard time, despite the church-state barrier.

Licensing boards could conceivably go after anyone who dispenses advice in a newspaper column, blog or other media. That could include Drs. Oz and Drew, Dr. Phil McGraw, Dr. Laura, or anyone else who provides information or services from a distance. A North Carolina blogger who advocated for the Paleo Diet had an action taken against him by the board which licenses nutritionists.

The Texas veterinary board censured a veterinarian for giving free online advice, because he had not personally examined the animal in question.

As for the Louisville Herald-Leader, Editor Peter Baniak says they have been publishing the column for thirty years, it is very popular, and they are not about to stop now.

How about bloggers? What about self-help books? If a psychologist publishes a self-help book, and on the flyleaf identifies as a psychologist, are they committing a crime? If we take the actions of the Kentucky psychology licensing board and their attorney Brian Judy at face value, they probably are. How about a phone call from a client who now lives out of state and needs some advice or information, or just needs to talk? If you write a book on dieting, you may consider restricting sales in North Carolina, or the nutritionist licensing board may want your scalp.

There is one more twist to this story. John has a web site, and posts his advice columns there. I am curious if the Kentucky psychology board plans restraining orders against ISPs, ordering them to block his website in Kentucky, just as China and Iran block unapproved sites. After all, Kentucky citizens must be protected from the online advice of a North Carolina psychologist.

Here is Jeff Rowes, explaining his theory of the case:

Mr. Rosemond appeared in a TV interview, presented below:

In a future column, I will be making observations about how licensing boards prevent attorneys, litigants and judges from obtaining the most skilled forensic experts to assist them with cases.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a board certified forensic psychologist, and have been in full time practice since 1972. I have also served on a state psychology licensing board as both Executive Secretary and Chair.  I know how boards work, and one of my biggest headaches was trying to keep my colleagues from violating licensees civil rights.

45 thoughts on “Kentucky Psychology Board vs. the First Amendment. Oh My!”

  1. Otteray @ 4:48

    Very well put – and concur greatly.

    Though we may vehemently disagree;
    I’ll fight for your right to speak your mind.

  2. Read this yesterday…. Very interesting…. What is the conflict…. Maybe the other guy wants to write the articles…. In counseling… It’s like shoes… Not one size fits all….

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