About Serafine v Branaman

This blog has two sets of readers. Many have been following the case Serafine v Branaman for years and want frequent updates on latest developments. Others are learning about it and want background info before getting up-to-date. This post is for the latter. Please scroll down for latest updates.

Who is Mary Lou Serafine?
At the beginning of this case, Mary Lou Serafine was the Republican nominee in her district for Texas Senate in 2010. She lived then, as now, in Austin.

What issue started this case?
Serafine posted on her campaign website, www.serafineforsenate.com, a traditional “bio.” It said: “Mary Lou Serafine is an Austin attorney and psychologist.”

Why was that a problem?
Texas had taken the position, in the Texas Psychologists’ Licensing Act, that the unlicensed “practice of psychology” was prohibited, fined, and carried criminal penalties. The practice of psychology included even using the words “psychological, psychologist, or psychology” to describe oneself or any service one offered.

Who noticed it?
The Texas Psychological Association—which is a private organization—emailed Serafine that, in their opinion, the sentence on her website violated the Psychologists’ Licensing Act. TPA then notified the government agency, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists.

Serafine asserts there is virtually no division between the TPA and the Board. The Board then signed its own complaint against Serafine and later contacted the Attorney General’s office to begin enforcement. The Board and the Attorney General also found Serafine unlawful for filling out the form to get on the ballot, when she hand-wrote the words “attorney, psychologist” in the slot marked “Occupation.”

Why was she known to be a psychologist?
Serafine holds a Ph.D. in education and published her doctoral dissertation in psychology. She did post-doctoral work in psychology at the Yale Department of Psychology and also taught undergraduate courses in psychology at Yale and Vassar. At the introductory level over the years, she taught in virtually all of psychology’s sub-fields – developmental and cognitive psychology, psychobiology, learning, memory, perception, language, motivation, social psychology, intelligence, personality, mental illness, psychotherapy and early childhood education. She taught several of these at the advanced level, plus research and statistics. In her research field, which concerned the psychology of music, Serafine was said to have done ground-breaking research.

How did this case wind up in court?
Serafine sued the Texas psychology board in order to get the psychology law struck down as unconstitutional under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In her view, it violated the freedom of speech. Psychologists do nothing but talk. Their opinions and advice—whether implicit or explicit—may be those of experts who are thoughtful and well-educated, but there is nothing about what they do that should prevent other people from equally providing their own opinions and advice. The public is entitled to choose whom they wish to talk to about the problems and joys of life. Serafine also believed that words like “psychologist, psychology, and psychologically” are ordinary words that the government may not ban. A government law that declares such words to be “titles” instead of just words, is not sufficient to create a ban.

What was the result of the law suit?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down as unconstitutional the major portion of the psychology law that defines the “practice of psychology.” It also held that the portion forbidding Serafine from using “psychologist,psychology, and psychologically” was also unconstitutional as applied to Serafine.

The case is Serafine v. Branaman, 810 F.3d 354 (5th Cir. 2016).


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