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Braiding Initiative Seeks to Untangle Restrictions On Natural Hair Braiders

By Paul Avelar

Natural, African-style hair braiding has been around for more than 5,000 years. It is a time-tested, safe practice that uses no dyes or chemicals and is deeply rooted in African cultural heritage, carrying with it significant historical importance.

Government has no business licensing something as safe and common as braiding hair. Nevertheless, in 24 states, governments force braiders to spend up to $20,000 or more on thousands of hours of irrelevant training that teach nothing about hair braiding.

Since our founding in 1991, IJ has defended the rights of braiders to earn a living. Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and the District of Columbia have all changed their laws in response to our lawsuits. In California and Utah, IJ succeeded in having federal courts strike down braider-licensing laws as unconstitutional. These cases, with their easy-to-understand facts and fantastic clients, have put economic liberty back into the courts’ and the public’s consciousness.

To continue the momentum, IJ launched its National Braiding Initiative in June to increase braiding freedom and continue to build economic liberty precedent that benefits entrepreneurs and workers in all occupations. We launched three federal lawsuits in three states on the same day to kick off our new initiative.

In Arkansas, before braiders can even touch a client’s locks, they first have to obtain a cosmetology license, which requires 1,500 hours of irrelevant training that costs more than $16,000. Missouri has the exact same requirements. In both states, this training teaches absolutely nothing about African-style hair braiding. In Missouri, the classes devote 110 hours to teaching how to give manicures and arm and hand massages—services braiders have no interest in offering. In fact, it takes far more time and money to get a cosmetology license than it takes to become a licensed emergency medical technician in each state. We have teamed with successful braiders—Nivea Earl and Christine McLean in Arkansas; Joba Niang and Tameka Stigers in Missouri—to ensure that all braiders are free to earn an honest living.

In Washington, we are reinforcing our prior victory. Although the Department of Licensing declared that braiding did not require a license when we previously sued them in 2004, last year they warned braider Salamata Sylla that she needed to obtain a cosmetology license to continue her braiding business. The Department’s unexplained about-face—without notice or explanation—means that braiders in Washington will once again have to get a cosmetology license just to braid hair.

The multi-state launch received excellent media attention. It was top news on the AP wire, and we received favorable coverage from coast to coast, as well as in the UK’s The Guardian. We have also launched BraidingFreedom.com, a new website to promote all of our braiding work.

IJ has also released a report about braiding laws across the country. Untangling Regulations is the go-to resource for media and other researchers on braiding laws and also includes information about the effects of burdensome specialty licenses on braiders. With this information, we will equip advocates of braiding freedom to push for minimal, if any, licensing requirements for braiders.

This initiative is about more than braiding hair. The precedent we set with victories will pave the way for thousands of hard-working men and women in other fields to enter the workforce and provide for themselves and their families through honest enterprise.

Paul Avelar is an IJ attorney.

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