Arlington, Va.—Can the government throw you in jail for offering advice on the Internet about what people should buy at the grocery store?
That is exactly the claim made by the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition. And that is why today diabetic blogger Steve Cooksey of Stanley, N.C. has teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a major First Amendment lawsuit against the State Board in federal court.
In December 2011, Steve Cooksey started a Dear Abby-style advice column on his blog to answer reader questions. In January 2012, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition informed Steve that he could not give readers personal advice on diet, whether for free or for compensation, because doing so constituted the unlicensed, and thus criminal, practice of dietetics.
The State Board also told Steve that his private emails and telephone calls with friends and readers were illegal. The Board also ordered him to shut down his life-coaching service. Violating the North Carolina licensing law can lead to fines, court orders to be silent and even jail.
“You don’t need the government’s permission to give someone ordinary advice,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “North Carolina cannot require Steve to be a state-licensed dietitian any more than it can require Dear Abbey to be a state-licensed psychologist.”
This lawsuit seeks to answer one of the most important unresolved questions in First Amendment law: When does the government’s power to license occupations trump free speech?
“Advice is protected speech,” said IJ attorney Paul Sherman. “Just because the government can license certain types of expert professional advice doesn’t mean the government can license every type of advice.”
Steve Cooksey began offering dietary advice because he is concerned about America’s diabetes epidemic. Over 25 million Americans have diabetes, including approximately 800,000 in North Carolina. The human and financial toll is staggering. Diabetes is now a leading cause of stroke, blindness, kidney failure requiring transplantation, and amputation. Because diabetes is a condition of elevated blood sugar, Steve advocates eating foods that keep blood sugar low.
After being diagnosed with Type II diabetes, Steve did research and learned that the high-carb/low-fat diet his doctors recommended to him may not be best for diabetics because carbohydrates raise blood sugar. He adopted the low-carb “Paleolithic” diet of our Stone Age ancestors: fresh veggies, meats, eggs and fish, but no sugars, processed foods or agricultural starches.
Steve lost 78 pounds, freed himself of drugs and doctors, normalized his blood sugar and feels healthier than ever. He believes a low-carb diet is the simplest, cheapest and most effective way to treat diabetes. This goes against the conventional wisdom promoted by licensed dietitians, which advocate a high-carb diet and drugs to lower blood sugar.
“Diabetics need access to information from all points of view, including those that challenge the conventional wisdom,” said IJ client Steve Cooksey. “We cannot let government licensing boards censor the Internet and chill our speech.”
For more on today’s lawsuit, visit www.ij.org/PaleoSpeech. Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is a national public interest law firm that fights for free speech and economic liberty nationwide.