tampabay.com

Hands up! Step away from that rock pile!

By HOWARD TROXLER
Published December 13, 2007


Until this week, I never knew there was a Florida law against the "unlicensed practice of geology."

But there is indeed such a law, and the state of Florida can use it against you - especially if you say the wrong things about the mining industry in this state.

"What are you, a geologist?" the state might demand of you. "How do you know that mining is bad for the environment?"

Our story begins in 2005, when a environmental activist named Sydney Bacchus attended public hearings in Putnam County, speaking on behalf of the opponents of proposed sand-mining there.

After that appearance, Bacchus got a "cease and desist" letter from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, accusing her of unlicensed geology.

The state was acting on a complaint from a geologist-supporter of the mining. He accused Bacchus of "making a mockery of our profession."

Now, it is perfectly true that Bacchus - who has a Ph.D. in a field called hydroecology - made all kinds of claims at the hearings. I do not know if she spoke truth or pure hokum.

But it doesn't matter. The state was telling her that her "unlicensed geology" was the fact of her participation in a public proceeding.

What a potential weapon for bad guys everywhere to harass opponents! By this standard, no citizen who speaks up is safe.

Go down to City Hall to speak out against a rezoning, and you might be practicing civil engineering without a license.

Speak against a chemical dump or a high-voltage power line, and maybe you're practicing medicine.

So Bacchus sued the state in federal court.

The state tried to wiggle out. It dropped its charges against her, while warning her not to do it again. Then it tried to get the lawsuit dismissed.

But this did not impress U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, the chief judge for the Northern District of Florida. He issued his ruling last month.

The state, the judge wrote, "apparently took the position that speaking at a public hearing on topics within the domain of a geologist constituted the practice of professional geology."

Hinkle further noted that the state "has never attempted to square this view with the First Amendment."

For a variety of reasons, he shot down the state's motion to dismiss.

Perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, the state has entered into settlement talks with Bacchus.

You will be delighted as a taxpayer to know that the proposed cost to you is a payment to her of only $100,000. Not counting, of course, the state's time and expense.

I talked to a nice press secretary from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and asked him, look, what were you guys thinking here?

He replied that the department was obeying the law as written. It got a complaint. It got expert opinions that what Bacchus was doing was unlicensed geology. It had to act.

And, you know, maybe that is so. But if the mining industry, or any other industry in Florida, thinks that this is a new strategy for shutting up citizens, then it has another think coming.

By the way, did you know that living near a mining operation turns your butt blue?

There, I said it. I now await formal charges from the Florida Board of Buttology.