Steve Cooksey is suing the government to satisfy his primal urges. He lives his life like a caveman — to great success — and started a website to share his “paleolithic” diet and lifestyle with the world. The state of North Carolina, however, is threatening to throw him in jail for it. In their mind, Steve is illegally practicing dietetics without a license, simply by offering non-expert advice to people on the internet. North Carolina’s brazen use of occupational licensing to encroach upon harmless, ordinary speech is in violation of the First Amendment and must be ruled unconstitutional.
After being hospitalized three years ago for complications related to Type-II diabetes, Steve radically changed his lifestyle to reflect that of his Stone Age ancestors: he ran around outside in his bare feet, and he shunned grains and sugars but ate plenty of meat, fish, nuts, and vegetables. Since then, he has lost over 75 pounds and has his diabetes under control without the use of insulin or drugs. Thrilled with his progress, Steve started a blog in 2010 sharing his story and recommending the “paleo” diet and exercise regimen for other people suffering from diabetes. In a matter of months, Steve had thousands of regular visitors and had started an advice column to help his readers transform their lives like he did. He even started offering “life coaching” services to help people commit to healthier living.
One day, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition sent Steve a 19-page print-out of his website, which they had marked up in red ink like uppity schoolmarms, detailing what Steve could or could not say on his website. The State Board told Steve that he could not give any nutritional advice — not even for free, not even privately to his friends and family. According to the state board, it is illegal for anyone to share dietary advice except for licensed dietitians. That means in North Carolina, you could be breaking the law if your Facebook status suggests what people should be eating or drinking.
Occupational licensing in the United States has reached a new level of absurdity. Governments for decades have been erecting needless barriers on behalf of entrenched interests to prevent people from performing honest work. Millions of people now require government permission before they can do their jobs, including barbers, florists, tour guides, and hundreds more harmless occupations that have little bearing on the public’s health and safety. Frequently, occupational licensing laws are passed at the behest of trade associations seeking to limit their future competition.
Now, North Carolina demands that people get a license from the state before they can speak to each other about ordinary topics like diet and exercise — all in the name of consumer protection. But even if Steve’s health advice were uninformed or unhelpful, he never claimed to be a doctor or a professional nutritionist, and it is unlikely any of his readers mistook him for one. And scouring the internet to find misleading or inaccurate information is not just a fool’s errand — it is an illegitimate misuse of government power.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from commanding what people can say, or who they can listen to. Sharing thoughts and advice about everyday life is a quintessential activity partaken by all humans, even prehistoric ones. North Carolina’s unconstitutional occupational licensing enforcement policies may be doomed to extinction, but they will make an unlikely hero of a modern day caveman who fought for his freedoms.
[Disclosure: the author was once employed by the Institute for Justice, the pro bono legal group currently representing Steve Cooksey.]