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IJ Untangles Cosmetology Laws With Back-to-Back Hairbraiding Victories

June 2005

IJ Untangles Cosmetology Laws With Back-to-Back Hairbraiding Victories

By Valerie Bayham

Top, IJ clients, Christina Griffin, Melony Armstrong and Margaret Burden (from left) stand with IJ staff attorney Valerie Bayham just after Governor Haley Barbour, center, signed legislation releasing Mississippi braiders from the Board of Cosmetology’s control. Institute for Justice Washington Chapter client, Benta Diaw, bottom, also no longer needs a cosmetology license, thanks to the pressure from her IJ-WA lawsuit.

The Institute for Justice has dealt protectionism dual knockout blows, defending the economic liberty of African-style hairbraiders from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. In both Mississippi and Washington state, braiders are celebrating their freedom from the unjust requirements of the states’ cosmetology boards. Braiders—who use no reactive chemicals or dyes—can now practice their cultural art form without having to complete hundreds of hours of onerous and irrelevant training.

On April 19, 2005, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour signed legislation freeing Mississippi braiders from the Board of Cosmetology’s control. Braiders no longer have to earn a cosmetology or wig-specialist license, requiring 1,500 hours or 300 hours, respectively. Instead, they simply pay a $25 registration fee to the Board of Health and complete a short self-test on basic health and sanitation guidelines. This legislative change was initiated in response to an IJ lawsuit filed last August that attacked the State’s outrageous training requirements for braiders and braiding instructors. The legislation will go into effect for a three-year trial period, starting on July 1.

This victory is a testament to the hard work and dedication of IJ clients Melony Armstrong and Margaret Burden, who traveled to the Mississippi capitol—along with their IJ attorneys—on a weekly basis in order to inform legislators about the importance of economic liberty to braiders.

Armstrong, who owns Naturally Speaking in Tupelo and also offers courses in advanced braiding techniques, noted after a private signing ceremony with the Governor, “This is a dream come true. I am finally able to expand my business and provide jobs to braiders.”

Burden, who has been braiding hair since she was a little girl, added, “This bill changes lives. It allows braiders to bring their dreams and ideas into reality. It is about more than economic empowerment—it demonstrates the power of each and every citizen to speak and have its government listen.”

In Washington state, IJ client Benta Diaw is now free to earn an honest living braiding hair as well. Diaw, a Seattle-area entrepreneur from Senegal, opened Touba African Hair Braiding in 1998—just two years after immigrating to the United States. With cosmetology inspectors threatening braiders with citations, Diaw was concerned that her livelihood was in jeopardy.

When faced with the might of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA), however, the Washington State Department of Licensing quickly retreated from its view that African braiders should be regulated as cosmetologists. This February, the Department filed an Interpretative Statement pursuant to Washington’s Administrative Procedure Act stating that the Department does not consider the practice of natural hair care to fall within the definition of cosmetology; therefore, braiders are not required to have a cosmetology license. Under Washington law, Interpretative Statements are written evidence of an agency’s interpretation of a statute or rule and are given “great weight” by the courts. Finding that African hairbraiders were no longer at risk of citations for operating without a cosmetology license in Washington, the lawsuit was dismissed in March.

Commenting on the success of the lawsuit, Diaw recently noted, “I am so very happy to be able to practice my heritage without worrying about the government closing my salon. And I know that other braiders here in Washington are thankful to be free to practice their heritage too.”

Thanks to Diaw, Armstrong, and Burden’s courage and their willingness to fight local bureaucrats and government red tape, African hairbraiding salons previously operating under the threat of investigation and prosecution by the government can now be secure in the knowledge that their rights are protected in Mississippi and Washington state.

Valerie Bayham is an IJ staff attorney.

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