African-style hair braiding is a common and safe practice that has been around for ages. It also offers exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs in African-American and African immigrant communities. Yet to braid hair for a living in Iowa, the state forced braiders to spend thousands of dollars and hours for cosmetology training—training that had nothing to do with African-style hair braiding. Instead of getting their businesses off the ground, Iowan hair braiders were tangled up in senseless regulations.

Iowa hair braiders are not the only workers burdened by occupational licensing laws. Iowa licenses more workers than any other state in the country, and despite well-known consequences, licensing laws like Iowa’s continue to spread nationwide. These laws require workers to clear several hurdles to gain the government’s permission to work in a particular field under the guise of protecting public health and safety. But all too often, occupational licensing has little to do with protecting the public and everything to do with protecting licensed workers from competition.

Aicheria Bell and Achan Agit are two African-style hair braiders in Iowa who have a passion for natural hair care and who want to braid hair to support themselves and their families. All that stood in their way was the state’s occupational licensing laws. That was why they teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to take a stand for their right—and the rights of all hair braiders—to earn an honest living.

In July 2016, Gov. Terry Branstad signed HF2459 into law after line-item vetoing certain provisions in the bill that continued to threaten braiders’ ability to earn a living. Soon after the line-item veto, IJ voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit. Hair braiders in Iowa are now free to earn an honest living.

Case Team



Case Documents

Media Resources

Get in touch with the media contact and take a look at the image resources for the case.

Matt Powers Reporting and Communications Manager [email protected]

Press Releases

The History, Art and Business of African-Style Hair Braiding

African-style hair braiding originated some 5,000 years ago in Africa. It was brought to the United States by Africans and has since become an important part of natural hair care in the United States. African-style hair braiding involves the twisting, braiding, locking, and weaving of natural hair into intricate and artistic geometric patterns and designs. It is considered natural hair care because it involves no chemicals or heat. In African and African-American communities, many people learn to braid hair as young children and are taught by family and friends.

Natural hair care has steadily increased in popularity in the United States and has grown into a multi-million-dollar industry. For many aspiring entrepreneurs, African-style hair braiding offers the first steps up the economic ladder and the ability to help others climb the ladder as well. In an open market, African-style hair braiding would offer business and employment opportunities to individuals in African-American and African immigrant communities because of the demand for these services and the little capital required to braid hair for a living.

Instead, occupational licensing laws prevent braiders from pursuing these types of opportunities in Iowa and across the country. By forcing braiders into burdensome licensing schemes that have nothing to do with hair braiding, many braiders are prevented from pursuing their calling. The practical effect is that licensed cosmetologists enjoy a near monopoly on all forms of hair styling, including African-style hair braiding, even though they often lack the training and ability to provide braiding services.

Iowa’s Cosmetology Licensing Regime

It is illegal to braid hair in Iowa without a cosmetology license, and the process to obtain a license is time-consuming, expensive and largely irrelevant to African-style hair braiding. 1  It is no surprise then that many braiders are unable to satisfy these requirements and are forced to stop braiding hair altogether or to work underground. These requirements, however, do not just hurt braiders. They also hurt consumers, who are left with fewer options and who pay more for services.

Iowa requires braiders to satisfy several requirements to braid hair for a living. Braiders must complete 2,100 hours at a licensed cosmetology school—which can cost as much as $22,000—and pass the state’s licensing exam. 2  Braiders must satisfy these requirements even though African-style hair braiding is typically not taught in cosmetology schools and not tested on the cosmetology licensing exam. 3  In addition to spending hundreds of hours for largely irrelevant training, the state also requires braiders to graduate from high school or its equivalent, which places an unreasonable burden on immigrants who may not possess the same type of formal education that is provided in America.

Licensing Laws Nationwide

Faced with these burdens, many braiders lack the time and resources to satisfy the state’s requirements and are either discouraged from braiding hair for a living or are forced into the underground economy. Those who work underground work in their homes or in salons that are willing to risk hiring them. They earn less money in these arrangements and work under the threat of criminal prosecution and thousands of dollars in fines. 4

By preventing braiders from lawfully providing their services, Iowa’s licensing scheme also harms consumers. Because hair braiding is not taught in cosmetology schools, many licensed cosmetologists lack the training to provide braiding services to the public. Meanwhile, braiders who possess the skills and expertise necessary to provide these services are banned by the state from doing so. In short, this scheme creates a shortage of braiding options for consumers and drives up prices for braiding services from the few licensed cosmetologists who are able to offer them.

The burdens of occupational licensing extend far beyond hair braiding. Occupational licensing has become a national epidemic that burdens workers and hurts consumers across the country.

Passed under the guise of protecting public health and safety, occupational licensing laws require workers to first obtain the government’s permission to work in a particular field. These laws impose various burdens on workers—including additional training, testing and fees—simply to enter the workforce. Yet because powerful industry groups often push for these types of laws and help dictate the standards for licensure, licensing burdens vary greatly and often arbitrarily by occupation. For example, in Iowa it takes 28 days for the average EMT to get a license, yet it takes the average cosmetologist 490 days to do the same. 5  These burdens have little to do with the health or safety risks posed and primarily protect industry insiders from competition.

The harmful effects of occupational licensing are now well-known. The evidence is clear: Licensing restricts employment opportunities and harms consumers by reducing competition and raising the price of goods and services. 6  Licensing also disproportionately affects lower income workers, minorities and aspiring entrepreneurs, who are less likely to afford the tuition and lost wages associated with licensing requirements. 7

Despite well-known consequences, occupational licensing continues to spread nationwide. In the 1950s, only five percent of American workers were required to hold an occupational license. 8  Today, that number has grown to 30 percent. 9  In Iowa, occupational licensing is even more widespread. Iowa licenses more workers than any other state in the country. 10  A victory in this case will help protect the ability of all Iowans to earn an honest living.

Legal Claims—The Right to Earn an Honest Living

Iowans have a constitutional right to economic liberty under the Iowa Constitution and U.S. Constitution. Both protect the right to earn an honest living free from irrational government regulation. The Iowa Supreme Court has further recognized that it is unconstitutional for the state to unreasonably burden safe economic activity. 11

In this lawsuit, Aicheria and Achan assert that the state’s cosmetology licensing laws as applied to African-style hair braiders violate state and federal constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. 12  In particular, they argue that the state has no business licensing something as simple and safe as hair braiding, especially when the state’s requirements are largely unrelated to hair braiding and fail to further any legitimate government interest in protecting public health or safety. They also argue that state law arbitrarily treats hair braiders the same as cosmetologists, even though the services they provide are very different. With this argument they assert that the right to equal protection protects differently-situated people from being treated the same.

In addition to these claims, Aicheria and Achan assert that the state’s cosmetology licensing laws violate the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment. This clause was designed to protect the right to earn an honest living from state interference, but courts have largely disregarded it. This case asks the court to recognize that braiders have a fundamental right to economic liberty under this clause.

The Plaintiffs

The plaintiffs are Aicheria Bell and Achan Agit, two African-style hair braiders who are being kept from earning an honest living by Iowa’s licensing requirements.

Aicheria Bell

Aicheria Bell lives in Des Moines. She is passionate about natural hair care and has been braiding hair since she was three years old. Aicheria is a single mom who relies on hair braiding to support herself and her daughter. She has braided hair in several states, including Minnesota, Georgia and Iowa.

When she lived in Minnesota, Aicheria paid $18,000 to attend a Minnesota cosmetology school. She completed 918 hours at the cosmetology school, but grew frustrated because she was not learning anything related to braiding. She dropped out because she needed an income to support her family and could not afford to waste any more time on irrelevant training instead of working and raising her daughter.

When Aicheria first moved to Des Moines, she considered attending cosmetology school but soon realized that, like her school in Minnesota, Iowa’s cosmetology schools also did not teach African-style hair braiding. She could not afford to take time away from working to again pursue the same irrelevant training.

Aicheria braids hair in a salon in Des Moines, even though it is illegal under state law. She is able to do so because the salon owner received special permission from the state cosmetology board to have an unlicensed braider work in the salon so long as the braider only uses a comb. Though this is not the law, the salon owner allows Aicheria to work in her salon subject to this comb-only restriction. Under this restriction, Aicheria cannot offer her customers all the services they would like, and she works in fear that the government will one day shut her down. If she could lawfully provide her services, she would start her own braiding salon and would teach others how to braid hair, creating employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in her community.

Achan Agit

Achan Agit is originally from the region of Sudan that is now South Sudan. She has been braiding hair since she was five years old. In 2001, Achan fled from Sudan with her family to escape civil war. After coming to America, she braided hair in a salon in Kansas City, Missouri, where she learned to speak English. She saw an opportunity to earn a good living braiding hair in America and dreamed of owning her own salon.

She saved her money and moved to Des Moines to open her own salon called African Dream. But when she went to get a business license from the city, she learned it was illegal to braid hair without a license. She was forced to convert her salon into a retail store; however, she continued to braid hair in the store. She ran her business for about five months but closed her business when she was put on bed rest while pregnant and could no longer work in the store. She was forced to close her business because she feared hiring employees would draw unwanted attention to her business, and she would be penalized by the state. She could not afford to take that risk, so she closed her business and began braiding out of her home.

Achan works in fear that the state will punish her for providing her services without a license. If she could braid without a license, she would reopen her salon, grow her business and better provide for her family.

The Defendants

The defendants in this case are the government agency and officials tasked by state law to enforce the licensing laws against Aicheria, Achan and other braiders. These defendants are the Iowa Board of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences and its board members, who have been sued in their official capacities.

The Litigation Team

The litigation team consists of IJ attorney Meagan Forbes and IJ senior attorney Paul Avelar. They will be assisted by Iowa attorney Ryan Koopmans of Nyemaster Goode, P.C.

The Institute for Justice: 20 Years of Protecting Economic Liberty

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. The Institute for Justice works to protect the right to earn an honest living in federal and state courts across the country.

IJ has successfully defended braiding freedom in courts across the country. IJ’s very first case was a lawsuit filed on behalf of hair braiders in Washington, D.C. 13 IJ has since protected the rights of hair braiders to earn an honest, living free from oppressive and irrational licensing laws in California, 14  Ohio, 15  Utah, 16 Mississippi, 17  Arizona, 18  Minnesota, 19  Arkansas, 20  Washington, 21  and Texas. 22  IJ is also currently challenging the licensing of African-style braiders in Missouri. 23

For more information, please contact:

Matt Powers
Communications Coordinator
Institute for Justice
901 N. Glebe Rd # 900
Arlington, VA 22203-1854
[email protected]
(703) 682-9320

    Related Cases