John Rosemond has been dispensing parenting advice in his newspaper column since 1976, making him one of the longest-running syndicated columnists in the country.
But some Kentucky authorities want to put him in a time out.
In May, Kentucky's attorney general and its Board of Examiners of Psychology told Rosemond his parenting column — which regularly offers old-school advice and shows little tolerance for any kind of parental coddling — amounts to the illegal practice of psychology.
They want him to agree to a cease-and-desist order. In particular, they want Rosemond to stop identifying himself as a psychologist, because he is not a licensed psychologist in Kentucky. They also suggest that columns written in a question-and-answer format are a particular concern because they are akin to providing direct mental health services.
Rosemond, an author of 11 parenting books who has a master's degree in psychology from Western Illinois and is a licensed psychologist in his home state of North Carolina, sees the board's letter as an effort at censorship and is filing a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court seeking to bar the state from taking any action against him. His column is syndicated through McClatchy-Tribune News services and is estimated to run in more than 200 newspapers.
He is represented by the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which has filed multiple lawsuits challenging what they see as overreach by government licensing boards.
Institute for Justice lawyer Paul Sherman says that under Kentucky's logic, columnists like Dear Abby and television personalities like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz are breaking the law any time they offer advice, because the content is aired in Kentucky and meets the state's broad definition of psychological advice.
The institute has filed a variety of challenges to state and federal laws they say are designed to shield special-interest occupations from competition. They recently filed a successful challenge to new IRS rules that would have required many tax preparers to pass a competency exam. They also recently won a case on behalf of Benedictine monks who challenged a Louisiana law that prevented them from making and selling caskets because they were not licensed funeral directors.
The Kentucky board's actions against Rosemond are particularly egregious, Sherman said, because the state is seeking to regulate a psychologist outside its own borders and because the rules it seeks to enforce are so broad that they could easily interfere with all manner of free speech.
"This is one of the most important questions unanswered by the Supreme Court: Can occupational licensing laws trump the First Amendment? We're looking forward to getting an answer," Sherman said.
Eva Markham, who chairs the Kentucky psychology board, said Tuesday that the board's primary point of contention is that Rosemond refers to himself as a psychologist, when he is not licensed in Kentucky. She pointed out that the master's degree that backs his license in North Carolina would be insufficient in Kentucky.
She said the concerns about the Q-and-A format of the column likely would never have been an issue for the board except for the concerns about his title.
"We don't care what he writes," she said. "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 would accept the Q-and-A format if the concerns over Rosemond's title were resolved.
"I'd have to ask the board at this point," she said.
The current dispute began when a retired Kentucky psychologist wrote to the state's Board of Examiners of Psychology complaining about a column Rosemond wrote in February, in which he advised parents seeking advice on reining in an overly indulged teenager to take away his privileges, and strip bare the walls of his bedroom, until his grades and behavior improved.
The psychologist who complained to the board, T. Kerby Neill of Lexington, said his goal was to get the Lexington newspaper to stop referring to Rosemond as a psychologist because North Carolina's licensing standards are not as strict as Kentucky's. While Neill said he does not believe Rosemond should be giving specific advice to people he has not personally examined, he said he never sought for the board to try to regulate the content or format of Rosemond's columns.
"That's going beyond the issues I raised with the board," he said.
It is not the first time Rosemond's column has created a conflict with licensing boards. Records from the North Carolina Psychology Board show he received a reprimand in 1988 and was told to "inform your audiences of other points of view in a balanced manner." Then, in 1992, he received complaints after writing in a column that an 18-month-old child was unlikely to have any memory of an incident of sexual abuse.
Rosemond, 65, of Gastonia, N.C., said that column produced a firestorm of criticism and complaints. While Rosemond explicitly denied he did or said anything wrong in the column, he agreed to have a supervisor review his column for three years.
"I admit to being a controversial figure," said Rosemond, who frequently expresses disdain in his columns for the conventional wisdom of the psychological community. He advocates a return to the parenting styles of the '50s. "I feel like psychology has created more problems for American children than we know how to count."
Peter Baniak, editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, which ran the column that prompted the psychology board's cease-and-desist letter, said Monday that his paper has not been contacted by the board or the Kentucky attorney general, and that the paper intends to continue publishing the column.
"I would find it troubling for a state board to suggest or think it has the ability to say what should or shouldn't run in an advice column," Baniak said.
Rosemond is confident his lawsuit will succeed.
"I just feel it's a good fight," Rosemond said. "I'm a constitutional conservative, and I'm outraged by the attempt of government agencies to do this sort of thing."