RALEIGH — North Carolina psychologist John Rosemond’s popular parenting advice column has been syndicated in more than 200 newspapers across the country since 1976, but soon it may disappear from all newspapers in the state of Kentucky.

In May, Kentucky’s attorney general sent Rosemond a letter asking that he “cease and desist” publishing his Dear-Abby-style advice column in the state, saying that doing so constituted the unlicensed “practice of psychology,” a crime punishable by $500 per offense and up to 6 months in jail.

Rosemond is licensed to practice family psychology in North Carolina. But because he does not hold a license to practice psychology in Kentucky, the Kentucky Board of Examiners of Psychology and the state’s attorney general reason that his opinion column cannot be syndicated in their state.

The Institute for Justice — a libertarian public-interest law firm — is filing a federal lawsuit against the psychology board on Rosemond’s behalf. Rosemond’s attorneys say the case is part of the institute’s larger effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to settle an unanswered question: Can occupational licensing laws trump free speech?

Are Dear Abby and Dr. Phil next?

Rosemond holds a master’s degree in psychology and is a licensed psychologist in North Carolina. He has written more than a dozen books on parenting, books that have sold more than a million copies. His syndicated opinion column — which often includes questions from readers nationwide — is America’s longest-running advice column written by a single author. (Dear Abby had two authors.)

Initially, his column answered questions from parents he met at seminars he teaches around the country. With the advent of the Internet, he invited parents to submit questions to his website, Rosemond.com.

Rosemond advocates a no-nonsense, old-fashioned approach to parenting and discipline. He promotes ideas like children being “seen and not heard,” spankings “when necessary,” and “tough love.” He criticizes what he calls new-fangled approaches to parenting — such as attachment parenting — as “extreme and destructive.”

While he knew his parenting advice was controversial, his lawyers say he never dreamed he’d see the day, in America, when the government told him to shut up.

May 7, Rosemond saw that day. He received what the Institute for Justice calls an “astonishing” letter from the Kentucky attorney general’s office telling him to “cease and desist” the unlicensed “practice of psychology” in Kentucky or face “further legal action.”

(Read a PDF of the letter here.)

According to the AG’s office, and the Kentucky Board of Examiners of Psychology it represents, answering individual readers’ questions in his opinion column is akin to one-on-one psychological counseling.

The letter cited, as an example, a column published Feb. 12 in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“The article is your response to a specific question from a parent about handling a teenager was a psychological service to the general public, which constituted the practice of psychology,” the letter said.

Kentucky law defines the practice of psychology as “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. …”

Carolina Journal attempted repeatedly to get comment from the attorney general’s office and the psychology board as to what types of activities constitute the “practice of psychology,” but both agencies refused to comment.

The director of the psychology board, Robin Vick, did not respond to two emails or three messages left on her voicemail over the course of a week.

UPDATE: Vick sent the following reply to CJ several hours after this article was posted: “This matter is still open and ongoing. The board sent a cease and desist letter and requested additional time on May 31, 2013. No final action has been taken by the board.”

A spokeswoman for Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said the attorney general’s office had “nothing to do with” the letter that came from the attorney general’s office, sent on the attorney general’s letterhead, including the closing, “Sincerely yours, Jack Conway, Attorney General.”

“Jack Conway had nothing to do with this,” said Conway’s deputy communications director Shelley Catharine Johnson. “It would not be appropriate for us to comment on a matter that we had nothing to do with.”

Johnson said any comment would have to come from the psychology board.

CJ asked both agencies whether the law could be applied to someone like Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura, who have popular television and radio shows giving one-on-one psychological advice to viewers and listeners across the country and in Kentucky.

Conway’s spokeswoman refused to answer the question, saying, “no final action has been taken” against Rosemond and that the AG’s office doesn’t comment on “open and ongoing matters.”

But Institute for Justice Attorney Paul Sherman weighed in on the question.

“Their logic seems to be that if you answer an individual’s question in a way that is visible to people in Kentucky, that is the practice of psychology,” Sherman said. “They don’t know that the person who asked the question was from Kentucky, or that he ever even saw the answer.”

Kentucky’s definition of the practice of psychology “is so broad, and the board has demonstrated itself to be so aggressive, that we don’t know what they think the limits on their power are,” he said.

If the law is interpreted to the letter, it could apply to Dr. Phil’s TV show or Dr. Laura’s radio show, Sherman said.

“But the danger is not that they could go after Dr. Phil,” he said. “The danger is the law is so broad, they can go after whomever they want. And they’re probably not going to go after Dr. Phil, but they are going to go after smaller people, who they think don’t have the resources to defend themselves.

Occupational licensing vs. free speech

Over the past year, the Institute for Justice has filed lawsuits on behalf of a North Carolina diet blogger and a Texas veterinarian, both of whom were targeted by government officials for giving advice over the Internet.

The institute also has challenged attempts to use occupational licensing laws to silence “for sale by owner” websites, unlicensed interior designers and unlicensed tour guides.

Parenting “advice — dispensed by grandparents and other relatives, community elders, ministers, neighbors, friends, and a host of other unlicensed persons — has undoubtedly been common for as long as language has existed,” said an Institute for Justice press release.

Allowing such speech to be regulated by occupational licensing laws would set “an extraordinarily dangerous precedent that will only grow as more and more occupations become subject to government licensure,” the release continues. Today, one in three workers needs a license from the government to work in their chosen occupation, up from just one in twenty in the 1950s.”

Government power to license advice — and to silence unlicensed speakers — could lead to “widespread censorship and deprive millions of Americans of their ability to use newspapers, blogs, social media, and other online venues to seek advice about topics such as parenting, pregnancy, marriage, and other serious issues.”

Sherman said Rosemond’s case probably will end up in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 4th Circuit Court recently ruled in favor of the idea that dietary advice is speech protected by the First Amendment. If the 6th Circuit ruled against the idea that parenting advice is a protected form of speech, it would increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court would have to resolve the greater question of whether occupational licensing laws trump free speech.

Editor and Vice President of the Herald-Leader Peter Baniak said his newspaper “has run John Rosemond’s column for years. We plan to continue doing so.”

Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.