Arkansas Hair Braiders File Civil Rights Lawsuit Against State Two Hair Braiders Sue to End Arkansas’s Cosmetology Licensing Requirement

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 16, 2014

Little Rock, Ark.—What profession is so dangerous that it requires 1,500 hours of classroom instruction before a person is allowed to work? Neither EMTs nor firefighters are required to have nearly so much training—but that’s what Arkansas requires of hair braiders before they can get a license to work. Today, two hair braiders are challenging this license requirement in federal court.

“Needless red tape and regulatory overreach has Arkansas’ hair braiders practically pulling their hair out in frustration,” said Paul Avelar, an attorney with the Institute for Justice (IJ) and the lead attorney on the case. “Occupational licensing regulations, like those governing hair braiding, deny thousands of Arkansans their right to earn an honest living. Today’s lawsuit is the beginning of the end for Arkansas regulators’ stranglehold on hair braiders’ economic opportunity.”

Christine McLean has been running her own hair braiding salon in Little Rock for three years, and Nivea Earl just opened her braiding shop last month in Jacksonville. Both women are thrilled to be successful entrepreneurs. But they are far from living the American dream. Every day, both women have to worry the state will shut down their businesses because they do not have a license to braid. Christine has already had to pay almost $2,000 in fines, solely for braiding without government permission. Violators are even subject to 90 days in jail.

“Natural” or African-style hair braiding has been practiced for over 5,000 years. It is time tested and completely safe. But Arkansas considers braiders to be cosmetologists, so it requires that braiders attend cosmetology school for 1,500 hours and take two exams before they can ask for money for their services. Yet braiding is completely different from cosmetology. Unlike licensed cosmetologists—who cut hair, use caustic chemicals, dyes, and other artificial hair styling techniques—braiders just rely on their fingers and combs to create their styles. What’s more is that cosmetology school does not even teach braiding, and the two exams don’t test it.

The effect is that Arkansas requires braiders to spend as much as $20,000 in tuition and almost a year in training that has nothing to do with their occupation.

“Licensing laws, like those regulating hair braiding, are a convenient cover for protecting a regulated industry from competition,” said Erica Smith, an IJ attorney who also represents Christine and Nivea. “By forcing hair braiders to get an expensive license, cosmetology schools are guaranteed tuition-paying students and licensed cosmetologists are protected from competition, forcing consumers to pay more.”

In addition, a large body of research demonstrates that occupational licensing laws, such as those governing hair braiding, create artificial barriers to entry for entrepreneurs seeking to take their first step on the economic ladder. That’s especially true for occupations that traditionally cater to low-income individuals or those just beginning a professional career.

“The Constitution protects individuals’ right to earn an honest living in their chosen occupation, free from pointless government interference,” said Avelar. “When the government imposes irrational regulations on earning a living, courts must protect the individuals’ rights.”

Arkansas is not the only state with burdensome hair braiding laws. Twenty-three other states require more than 1,000 hours of training to legally braid hair.

Today’s lawsuit kicks off IJ’s national legal initiative to untangle the country’s outdated cosmetology laws and put an end to the economic protectionism that denies thousands of entrepreneurs their right to earn an honest living braiding hair. Also as part of the initiative, IJ attorneys filed two other lawsuits today against Missouri and Washington’s burdensome licensing laws. IJ additionally launched a website and video aimed at educating Americans about the issue.

IJ is a nonprofit, public interest law firm. Today’s initiative is the continuation of IJ’s 23 years of work successfully representing hair braiders in their battle for economic liberty. It follows work in nine previous cases, where IJ won two court victories in California and Utah, and six legislative victories in Arizona, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi, Washington and Washington, D.C. The ninth case is still in litigation.

Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.