Victory for African Hairbraiders Over Tangle of Cosmetology Laws

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 11, 2005

Seattle—Benta Diaw, a Seattle area entrepreneur originally from Senegal, Africa, waged a fight against unjust government regulation of African hairbraiders and today she won.  The King County Superior Court today recognized that the Washington Department of Licensing has abandoned its efforts to require African hairbraiders to obtain cosmetology licenses.

As a result of her legal challenge filed by the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA), the State’s Department of Licensing has backed so far away from enforcing laws that once threatened Diaw’s livelihood that today a King County Superior Court judge dismissed Diaw’s lawsuit against the Department of Licensing and the Cosmetology, Barbering, Esthetics, and Manicuring Advisory Board.  The court ruled that African hairbraiders are no longer at risk in Washington.  Before the IJ-WA filed suit on Diaw’s behalf, the cosmetology board demanded that African hairbraiders had to obtain either a cosmetology or barbering license, requiring braiders to attend up to 1,600 hours (more than one year) of approved courses—none of which must actually teach hairbraiding—at an average cost of $7,500.

In response to Diaw’s lawsuit, earlier this year the Department of Licensing filed an “Interpretative Statement” that read in part, “The Department of Licensing has carefully considered the practice of natural hair braiding.  Natural hair braiding does not include hair cutting, application of dyes, reactive chemicals or other preparations to alter the color of the hair or to straighten, curl or alter the structure of the hair and therefore does not meet the requirements for licensure as set forth in RCW 18.16.”  Under Washington law, Interpretative Statements are written evidence of an agency’s interpretation of a statute or rule and, as the judge found today, “shall be given great weight” by the courts.

The judge found that because the Department of Licensing had recently adopted an Interpretative Statement specifically exempting African hairbraiding from the cosmetology regulations, such action thereby rendered Diaw’s case moot.

“All our clients—and thousands like them nationwide—want to do is earn an honest living practicing a craft handed down through the generations without having to get an irrelevant government license,” said IJ Staff Attorney Jeanette Petersen, the lead attorney in the challenge to Washington’s cosmetology regulations, Diaw v. Stephens, et al.  In August 2004, the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter filed a civil rights lawsuit seeking to overturn state cosmetology licensing laws in Washington on behalf of African hairbraiders who wish to practice without having to seek the government’s permission.  With this change in Washington’s approach to hairbraiding, IJ-WA builds on earlier victories eliminating cosmetology-licensing requirements for African hairbraiders in California, Arizona and Washington, D.C.

“We are glad that the Department’s Director ultimately recognized—over objections from the cosmetology industry—that it would be irrational to subject braiding to regulation as part of the cosmetology licensing regime,” said William Maurer, Executive Director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter.  “African hairbraiding salons previously operating under the threat of investigation and prosecution by the government now have some reassurance that they can practice their profession without being subject to harassment and enforcement actions.”

Earlier this week, the Institute for Justice and its African hairbraiding clients spearheaded a successful legislative effort in Mississippi that changed that state’s cosmetology laws concerning African hairbraiders.  On March 9, the Mississippi Senate reauthorized the Board of Cosmetology, but added an amendment that exempted braiders from the Board’s burdensome regulations.  Previously, Mississippi’s cosmetology licensing regime prevented braiders across the state from earning an honest living practicing and teaching their craft unless they completed up to several thousand hours of training in cosmetology classes that do not teach the art of hairbraiding.

Founded in 1991, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice has a long record of success in representing entrepreneurial Davids against government Goliaths.