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Braiding Freedom Initiative Continues to Brush Out Excessive Hair Braiding Laws

Natural hair braiders in Arkansas and Washington are free to earn an honest living thanks to IJ’s ongoing national braiding initiative. Now, 12 states do not require natural hair braiders to have licenses. These victories, and our victory in January on behalf of Texas-based Isis Brantley—who was prohibited from teaching hair braiding unless she converted her school into a full-blown barber college—mark a very successful first nine months of the initiative. Much of the success and continued national attention focused not just on hair braiding, but also on economic liberty and occupational licensing, are a testament to the strength of IJ’s coordinated litigation, legislation, activism, media and research efforts.

In Washington, we forced the Department of Licensing (DOL) to write a new rule protecting natural hair braiders. A decade ago, we sued the DOL because it required braiders to get a cosmetology license, but it backed down and declared that braiding did not require a license. In late 2013, however, DOL—without notice or explanation—told Salamata Sylla she needed a cosmetology license just to braid hair, so we returned to court.

Faced with our new lawsuit, the DOL agreed to a binding rule that Washington braiders are not required to have a license and can also use hair extensions as part of their practice. This new rule went into effect on April 10, bringing our lawsuit to an end.

In Arkansas, IJ sued on behalf of successful braiding entrepreneurs Nivea Earl and Christine McLean. Arkansas required Nivea and Christine to take 1,500 hours of cosmetology training, which can cost more than $16,000, even though the training has nothing to do with braiding.

Our lawsuit caught the attention of State Rep. Bob Ballinger, who called us to apologize for Arkansas’ law and offered legislation to fix the problem. Rep. Ballinger’s “Natural Hair Braiding Protection Act,” which is based on IJ’s model legislation, was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on March 15. The act exempts hair braiders from having to obtain any license and instead creates an optional certification. It will take effect shortly after the Arkansas legislative session ends, after which we will dismiss our case.

But our initiative is about more than braiding hair. Our efforts on behalf of braiders also benefit other workers. In Arkansas, for example, IJ helped open lawmakers’ eyes to the need for larger occupational licensing reforms. Braiding cases pave the way for hard-working men and women in other fields to provide for themselves and their families through honest enterprise.

Despite these victories, as many as 23 states continue to subject braiders to onerous, expensive and pointless licensing requirements. That is why IJ continues to fight for braiding freedom in Missouri—where we expect a court decision by the end of the year—and to work up our next round of braiding cases.

Government cannot license something as safe and common as braiding hair. So long as it does, IJ will keep fighting for—and winning—economic liberty for everyone.

Paul Avelar is an IJ attorney.

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