African Hairbraider Files Federal Suit To Untangle Utah’s Cosmetology Regime

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · April 25, 2011

Salt Lake City, Utah—Can the government prevent a person from earning an honest living for no other reason than to protect the politically powerful from competition?

That is the question to be answered by a federal lawsuit filed today by the Institute for Justice (IJ) and Jestina Clayton, an African hairbraider with more than 23 years of experience. The lawsuit is the most recent hairbraiding challenge by IJ, which has previously won seven similar challenges across the nation.

“Traditional” or “natural” hairbraiding traces back thousands of years to Africa. Today, thousands of practitioners engage in the intricate craft of twisting, braiding, weaving and locking hair in natural styles, mostly for African-American clients whose characteristically textured hair is perfect for such styling. These distinct techniques are generally grouped together under the rubric of “natural hair care” because they do not use any chemicals, heat or other artificial hairstyling techniques.

But the Utah Barber, Cosmetologist/Barber, Esthetician, Electrologist, and Nail Technician Licensing Board, which, by law, is controlled by industry insiders, has ruled that natural hairbraiders must first get a cosmetology/barber license before they can practice their craft. To get that license, braiders must spend as much as $18,000 to take 2,000 hours of classes. In the same number of class hours, a person also qualifies to be an armed security guard, mortgage loan originator, real estate sales agent, EMT and lawyer—combined. Such arbitrary and excessive government-imposed licensing on such an ordinary, safe and uncomplicated practice as hairbraiding is not only outrageous, it is unconstitutional.

“Licensing laws are a convenient cover for protecting a regulated industry from competition,” explained Tim Keller, executive director of IJ-Arizona. “By forcing hairbraiders to get an expensive license, cosmetology schools are guaranteed tuition-paying students and licensed cosmetologists are protected from competition, forcing consumers to pay more.”

Today’s challenge is Jestina’s third attempt to open Utah’s hairbraiding market for herself and others. “When I learned that Utah required me to get an irrelevant license to braid, I went to the Cosmetology Board and the Legislature to get this ridiculous law repealed,” explained Clayton. “But no one was willing to help me.”

“African hairbraiding is safe and you shouldn’t need the government’s permission to practice this trade,” said Paul Avelar, staff attorney with the Institute for Justice and lead counsel in this case. “Both the federal and Utah constitutions protect every individual’s right to earn an honest living in their chosen occupation free from pointless government interference. When the government imposes unreasonable regulations, as it has done here, courts must protect the individuals’ rights. No one should have to hire a lawyer or lobbyist just to braid hair.”

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