Lawsuit Challenges Washington’s Cosmetology Licensing Laws

John Kramer
John Kramer · August 5, 2004

Seattle.—The State of Washington thinks that Benta Diaw of Seattle must license her hands to practice her craft. Ms. Diaw disagrees and that is why today the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA) filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court in Seattle on her behalf against the State.

No, Diaw is not a secret agent or a martial arts master; she is merely an African hairbraider who seeks to earn an honest living in the cultural craft she learned in Africa from her grandmother. Diaw’s fight is emblematic of the desire of entrepreneurs statewide to free themselves from needless government red tape.

Despite the fact that hairbraiding uses no chemicals but instead is entirely natural hair care, the State Department of Licensing demands that African-style hairbraiders must 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.

Compared to other far-more dangerous activities, Washington’s hairbraiding license requirements are excessive and irrational:

  • Emergency medical technician certification in King County requires only 114 hours of classroom training and an examination.
  • Firefighting degrees from Everett Community College require only 14 weeks of evening and weekend courses and a state examination.
  • Securing a permit to carry a concealed weapon requires only 30 minutes, $60 and picture identification.

That disconnect between the State’s licensing requirement and the occupation Benta Diaw wants to pursue is the reason Diaw and the IJ-WA are challenging the State’s cosmetology licensing laws on behalf of practitioners of African hairbraiding whose chosen profession is stifled by these laws.

“In the guise of protecting public health and safety, the Department of Licensing licenses people to braid hair who have no experience in braiding, yet it forbids those who can braid from pursuing that trade,” declared Jeanette Petersen, IJ-WA’s staff attorney and lead attorney in the lawsuit, Diaw v. Washington State Cosmetology, Barbering, Aesthetics and Manicuring Advisory Board, et al. “Government regulations that do nothing more than protect established industries from competition are cutting off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder to those who need these opportunities the most. With this lawsuit, African hairbraiders like Benta Diaw are asking the government to get out of their hair.”

Diaw, a native of Senegal, Africa, learned to braid more than 20 years ago in Africa from her grandmother. Diaw immigrated to the United States, became a U.S. citizen and built a successful business with devoted clientele by braiding seven days per week. Benta simply wants to earn an honest living practicing the art she learned in Africa without undergoing 1,600 hours of needless “training” that will teach her how to trim nose hair, but will not teach anything about the art of African hairbraiding.

Bill Maurer, executive director of the IJ-WA, said, “The onerous licensing requirements force most braiders to operate underground. The laws needlessly stifle a vital means of employment and entrepreneurship and suppress an important form of cultural expression.”

This lawsuit was filed the same day as the release of a new study spotlighting government-imposed barriers to entrepreneurship in Seattle, Entrepreneurship in The Emerald City: Regulations Cloud the Sparkle of Small Businesses, (download now in PDF format ) published by the Washington Policy Center and authored by IJ-WA attorney Petersen. Both the study and this lawsuit are part of the Institute for Justice’s nationwide campaign to challenge regulations that block entry-level entrepreneurship.

At a time when record levels of immigrants are entering the workforce, irrational government regulations such as these unnecessarily block the way towards a brighter future for people like Benta. As detailed in the study, a staggering amount of regulatory red tape amounts to more than 100,000 regulatory requirements that a small business in owner must adhere to in order to legally run a business in Seattle.

“Our goal is to restore economic liberty—the right to earn an honest living—as a fundamental civil right,” said Maurer.

Earlier today, the Institute for Justice’s headquarters office in Washington, D.C. filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi challenging Mississippi’s cosmetology laws on behalf of Melony Armstrong, an experienced Tupelo braider who wishes to teach her trade but is barred from doing so by Mississippi law, as well as on behalf of two aspiring braiders who want to learn from Armstrong. With these two cases, IJ hopes to build on victories it has already achieved which eliminated cosmetology licensing requirements for African hairbraiders in California, Arizona and Washington, D.C.