Yoga Instructors File Federal First Amendment Lawsuit Seek to Vindicate the Freedom to Speak in Virginia

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 1, 2009

Arlington, Va.—May the state of Virginia subject yoga instructors to thousands of dollars in fines and a year in jail for engaging in unauthorized talking?
This is the question the Institute for Justice (IJ) seeks to answer in a federal First Amendment lawsuit filed today on behalf of three Virginia yoga instructors—Julia Kalish, Suzanne Leitner-Wise and Bev Brown.  Virginia’s controversial speech prohibition has received significant media attention, from outlets including the Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch

“In Virginia, you can teach anyone anything—except how to earn an honest living,” said Robert Frommer, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm with a history of defending free speech and the rights of entrepreneurs.  “This law makes no sense.  It says anybody can do yoga, and anybody can teach yoga, but it’s illegal to teach people to teach yoga.”

Yoga-teacher training is the latest target of vocational-school licensing laws that require countless entrepreneurs to ask the government’s permission before opening their mouths. The cost of compliance is typically thousands of dollars and over a week of full-time administrative work—enough to put small schools out of business.

IJ client Suzanne Leitner-Wise said, “I’m a small business.  I’m trying to make a living doing something that I love to do.  If I did have to comply with the Virginia regulations, then I wouldn’t be able to continue.”

Virginia yoga instructor schools must pay a $2,500 application fee and then a yearly renewal fee of $500-$2,500 based on gross tuition collected; submit financial and other records, some of which must be reviewed by an accountant; and other school records, get the commonwealth to review the “quality” of the school’s curriculum; purchase a bond of at least $5,000 and create and maintain mountains of administrative records and documents. 

Failure to comply can result in steep penalties.  Each violation incurs a fine of $1,000, capped at $25,000 in fines per year.  Criminal penalties of up to one year in prison or a $2,500 fine can also be levied for each violation of the statute or regulations, regardless of how minor.
“Yoga teacher training is something that goes back thousands and thousands of years,” said IJ client Julia Kalish.  “This is a tradition that’s been passed on generation to generation.  I don’t think it should be the state who decides whether or not we can continue this tradition.”

Frommer added, “Teaching is speech, plain and simple.  Under the First Amendment, Virginia cannot require teachers to get the government’s permission before speaking to their students.  That’s why we filed today’s federal First Amendment lawsuit.  We’re going to strike down this unconstitutional law and defend the rights of our clients and entrepreneurs across the state.”

Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice represents individuals in courtrooms across the country who successfully defend their free speech rights and ability to earn an honest living in the occupations of their choice.

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