Hairbraiding Lawsuits Make A National Case For Economic Liberty

October 1, 2004

Melony Armstrong of Tupelo, Miss., has practiced her craft for nine years. She runs her own business and now wants to move up the economic ladder by opening her own school so she can share her skills with others. But bureaucrats from Mississippi decided that Melony must complete 3,200 hours of courses to be allowed to teach the art of African hairbraiding.

On the other side of the country in Washington state, a similar problem entangles hard-working entrepreneurs. Benta Diaw, a native of Senegal, has been earning a living in Seattle working as an African hairbraider for the past six years. Benta built her successful business by working hard to establish a devoted clientele. But cosmetology regulations on the books in Washington require Benta to obtain a license to practice her art—a skill she learned in Africa from her grandmother.

In all but a handful of states, performing African hairbraiding professionally without a government-issued license is against the law. And earning the license requires braiders to take more than 1,000 hours of coursework that cover techniques completely unrelated and even antithetical to the type of natural hair care braiders provide.

One of IJ’s major goals is to restore economic liberty—the right to earn an honest living free from excessive government regulation—as a fundamental civil right. To accomplish that, we select cases where governments impose licensing requirements that make it impossible for entrepreneurs to start their businesses. These cases continue to lay a broad foundation off of which future economic liberty litigation will be conducted to free many other occupations. The effects of such licensing restrictions are starkest for businesses that require little capital or education, and among the most ridiculous kinds of licensing laws are those requiring licenses to braid hair.

That’s why the Institute for Justice filed two civil rights lawsuits on August 5, 2004, seeking to overturn state cosmetology licensing laws in Mississippi and Washington on behalf of those who wish to practice their craft without seeking the government’s permission. With these two cases, IJ hopes to build on victories eliminating cosmetology licensing requirements for African hairbraiders in California, Arizona and Washington, D.C.

All our clients—and thousands like them nationwide—want to do is earn an honest living practicing a craft handed down through the generations without having to get an irrelevant government license. Government regulations like these have nothing to do with protecting public health or safety and everything to do with protecting established economic interests from competition. Tragically, these regulations cut off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder in the process.

The State of Washington’s regulations are typical of many states, requiring even skilled braiders to take up to 1,600 hours of completely unrelated classes to get a cosmetology or barbering license to braid legally. In Mississippi, braiders can get a cosmetology license with a 1,500-hour class, or a “wigology” license with 300 hours of classes in wig care, but only two of the state’s more than 40 cosmetology schools offer wigology. That leaves most aspiring braiders in the state with only three options: attend an expensive, 1,500-hour cosmetology program that doesn’t teach braiding, abandon their profession or operate outside the law.

Recognizing this problem, Melony Armstrong, who earned her wigology license, decided to open a wigology school to teach her craft to others. But the State doesn’t allow wigology-only schools. Instead, Melony must open a cosmetology school—even if she only wants to teach braiding and wigology—which means spending more than 3,000 hours (about three academic years) in cosmetology and cosmetology instructor programs. Of course, those programs don’t teach braiding.

Consider that in the 3,200 classroom hours it would take for Armstrong to get a license to teach hairbraiding, she could instead become licensed in all of the following professions: emergency medical technician (122 hours plus five emergency runs), paramedic (1,700 hours), ambulance driver (8 hours), law enforcement officer (ten weeks), firefighter (six weeks), real estate appraiser (75 hours) and hunting education instructor (20 hours). And all of that would take more than 600 hours less than getting her license to teach braiding.

Similarly in Washington, the extensive training required for one to lawfully braid hair is especially incongruous in light of the training required to perform other, far more dangerous, jobs and activities. Emergency medical technician certification, for example, requires only 114 hours of classroom training and an examination. One can graduate with a firefighting degree after only 14 weeks of evening and weekend courses and a state examination. And as long as you have $60 and picture identification, applying for a concealed weapons permit takes about 30 minutes.

In a press release issued the same day as IJ filed suit, Washington’s Department of Licensing director issued a press release that claimed the DOL had never taken action against a braider for not being licensed and had never received a formal complaint against a hairbraider. IJ instantly responded with a release of its own refuting that point with documented proof from the Department itself, which helped IJ carry the day in the court of public opinion.

In the guise of protecting public health and safety, nearly every state in the country licenses people to braid hair who have no experience in braiding, yet they forbid those who can braid but do not hold a license from pursuing that trade. It’s a system that makes absolutely no sense.

So Melony and Benta, with the help of the Institute for Justice, are saying to their states, “Get out of our hair!”

Dana Berliner is an Institute senior attorney.

Jeanette Petersen is an Institute for Justice Washington Chapter staff attorney.

Also in this issue

Hairbraiding Lawsuits Make A National Case For Economic Liberty

Know Law Students Who Love Liberty?

Florida Choice Fight Continues

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