Every day, millions of Americans dispense advice to friends, relatives, and complete strangers through blogs, websites, and a variety of online publications. And each time they do so, many of these Americans could be risking substantial fines and perhaps even imprisonment.
As an example, three years ago Steve Cooksey was rushed to the hospital in a diabetic coma. After being discharged, Cooksey vowed to change his life and began researching health and diabetes on the Internet. He soon started a blog, Diabetes Warrior, which developed a large readership.
In January 2012, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition told Cooksey that he needed to obtain a dietitian license—a process that would take several years and thousands of dollars—if he was to continue giving advice on what food to eat. The board also told Cooksey that it was illegal to give free advice to friends and relatives, even in private. With the help of the Institute for Justice, Cooksey is fighting the state board.
Steve is just one of the millions of Americans who must obtain the government’s permission to work in the field of his choice. Across the nation, more than eight hundred different professions require a state license. Among those professions are: manure spreaders in Iowa, upholsterers in Utah, and florists in Louisiana.
So, if you live in Des Moines, and write a blog post on how to best apply composted cow dung to gardens and lawns, you could be violating a state licensing law. If you live in New Orleans and write about flower arrangements, you could go to jail. It is bad enough that millions of Americans must meet arbitrary government standards in order to work, but Cooksey’s case takes this government power much further.
The North Carolina government seeks to make it illegal for some individuals to talk about certain topics. In this case, before you can talk about diet and nutrition, you must first receive a stamp of approval from the state. In principle, this means that the government can stifle any speech that it has not approved. Today, it might be speech relating to diet and nutrition. Tomorrow, it could easily be politics and the economy. If you do not have the right to speak freely about food, what do you have a right to speak freely about?
“A ‘right,’” wrote Ayn Rand, “is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life.” Each individual has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enhance his life, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.
This includes working in the profession of one’s choosing. So long as Steve Cooksey does not engage in fraud—claim that he has experience, training, or credentials that he does not have—he has a right to say anything he wants about nutrition and diet. And his readers are free to accept his advice or reject it.
Our rights are not isolated and separable. To violate one right is to violate all rights. For the State of North Carolina to control how Steve Cooksey lives his life, it must also control his profession and dictate his speech. And when government can do that to Steve Cooksey, it can do it to anyone.