Federal Court Upholds Missouri Hair Braiding Licensing Scheme

Institute for Justice · September 21, 2016

St. Louis, Missouri—Late yesterday, a federal district court upheld Missouri’s requirement that African-style braiders spend thousands of dollars on 1,500 hours of irrelevant training before they can work, declaring “the State of Missouri is free to engage in ‘rational speculation unsupported by evidence.’”

Joba Niang and Tameka Stigers—both St. Louis-area African-style hair braiders represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ)—first challenged the law in 2014 and plan to appeal the decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court acknowledged that the braiders “do not fit comfortably within the traditional definition of cosmetologists and barbers set out under state law” and that “much of the education and training that traditional cosmetologists and barbers undergo is not directly relevant” to hair braiding. However, the court said that it ruled against the braiders because, it claimed, they failed to discredit “every conceivable basis which might support [the regulation] whether or not the basis has a foundation in the record.”

Today’s decision is at odds with two nearly identical federal cases in California and Utah, where similar laws were struck down as violating the U.S. Constitution.

“Licensing African-style hair braiders as cosmetologists is just as unconstitutional today as it was when we filed this lawsuit. The U.S. Constitution protects every individual’s fundamental right to earn an honest living free from arbitrary and irrational government regulations like these,” said IJ Attorney Dan Alban, who argued the case before the court. “We will appeal this decision in order to vindicate the constitutional right to economic liberty for all Missouri entrepreneurs.”

Under Missouri law, hair braiders must spend thousands of dollars on 1,500 hours of government- cosmetology training that requires no instruction about hair braiding. Even the Missouri Board of Cosmetology has admitted that less than 7 percent of the training hours are even generally relevant to African-style hair braiders.

“I do not need a license in a completely different occupation to safely braid hair. I have been safely braiding hair for decades to provide for my family. I cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars and thousands of hours to go back to school to learn about irrelevant techniques and dangerous chemicals that I do not use at my shop,” said Joba Niang, who has offered braiding services in the St. Louis suburb of Florissant since 2001.

“Missouri’s licensing regulations erect anticompetitive barriers to entry for African-style hair braiders,” said IJ Attorney Greg Reed, who also represents the braiders. “These licensing laws protect the cosmetology industry from competition. No one should have to hire a lawyer or a lobbyist just to go to work. At the same time, consumers—particularly African-Americans who are looking for natural alternatives to traditional cosmetology—benefit from more choices, not fewer.”

“Today’s decision is an example of what happens when courts choose to ignore the facts and rubber-stamp government regulations. Courts cannot abdicate their constitutional responsibility to provide a check on government overreach on behalf of entrenched special interests,” concluded IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar, who oversees IJ’s Braiding Freedom Initiative.