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Natural Hair Care Gets its Day in Court; National Legal Initiative Puts State Cosmetology Laws in the Crosshairs

Arlington, Va.—What occupation is so dangerous that it requires more than 1,000 hours of classroom instruction before a student is allowed to work? Neither EMTs nor firefighters undergo so much training—but thanks to a tangled mess of state cosmetology laws, that is what 24 states require in order to practice the craft of natural hair braiding.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit public interest law firm, aims to change that. Today, IJ launched a national legal initiative to untangle the country’s outmoded cosmetology laws and put an end to the economic protectionism that denies thousands of entrepreneurs their right to earn an honest living braiding hair. As part of the initiative, IJ attorneys filed civil rights lawsuits in federal courts in three states and launched a website and video aimed at educating Americans about the issue.

“Needless red tape and regulatory overreach has hair braiders across the country practically pulling their hair out in frustration,” said Paul Avelar, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “Occupational licensing regulations, like those governing hair braiding, deny millions of Americans their right to earn an honest living. Today’s initiative is the beginning of the end for government regulators’ stranglehold on hair braiders’ economic opportunity.”

Unlike Western-style cosmetology, natural hair braiders do not cut hair, nor do they use caustic chemicals, dyes or other artificial hair styling techniques, making it a time-tested, safe occupation. Despite this, states across the country claim that people who just braid hair are practicing cosmetology, and require that braiders spend upwards of 1,500 hours (approximately nine months) and many thousands of dollars to go to an approved cosmetology school.

“The irony is that cosmetology schools do not teach hair braiding and the licensing examination does not test it,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “Licensing laws, like those regulating hair braiding, are a convenient cover for protecting a regulated industry from competition. By forcing hair braiders to get an expensive license, cosmetology schools are guaranteed tuition-paying students and licensed cosmetologists are protected from competition, forcing consumers to pay more.”

Natural or African-style hair braiding traces its roots back more than 5,000 years to Africa. Today, thousands of braiders engage in the craft of braiding, twisting, weaving and locking hair in natural styles, primarily for African or African-American clients whose characteristically textured hair lends itself to such styling.

“Although hair braiding predates our own Constitution, it nevertheless rests squarely within the Constitution’s fundamental protections of the right to earn an honest living,” said Dan Alban, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “The Constitution protects individuals’ right to earn an honest living in their chosen occupation free from pointless government interference. When the government imposes irrational regulations on earning a living, courts must protect individual rights.”

A large body of research demonstrates that occupational licensing laws, such as those governing hair braiding, create artificial barriers to entry for entrepreneurs seeking to take their first step on the economic ladder. That’s especially true for occupations that traditionally cater to individuals just beginning a professional career.

The lawsuits, which were filed today in Arkansas, Missouri and Washington, raise claims under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, specifically under the Due Process, Equal Protection, and Privileges or Immunities Clauses of the amendment. These lawsuits ask that the courts strike down the lengthy, expensive and irrelevant cosmetology training requirements for African-style hair braiders, so braiders can get back to work.

The  initiative is the continuation of IJ’s 23 years of work successfully representing hair braiders in their battle for economic liberty. It follows work in nine previous cases, where IJ won two court victories in California and Utah, and six legislative victories in Arizona, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi, Washington and Washington, D.C. The ninth case is still in litigation and involves Isis Brantley, a natural hair braider who wants to teach braiding, but Texas is forcing her to obtain pointless barber-teacher training and spend thousands of dollars on useless barbering equipment and teaching space that she will never need.

Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.

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