Customers who visit Salamata Sylla's tiny hair salon in Kent, Wash., will find two chairs, a television, a wash basin, and not much else. Sylla, 30, mostly uses the basin for rinsing combs. Using her hands, she transforms hair into braids, cornrows, and—her specialty—Senegalese twists.
In Washington state, African hair braiders can open a salon with just a business license. At least, that's what Sylla thought, until inspectors from the Department of Licensing told her she needed a cosmetologist's license to braid in hair extensions.
Now Sylla is suing the state with help from a libertarian law firm called the Institute for Justice. Since its founding in 1991, IJ has sued on behalf of hair braiders in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Of eight completed cases so far, two were won in court and six led to a change in licensing rules. Both the firm and its clients believe that occupational licensing laws can infringe on a constitutional right to earn a living. In the case of hair-braiding regulations, they also have the troubling effect of targeting mostly minority women and their businesses.
Sylla started braiding hair as a child, in Senegal, and started to braid professionally as a teenager. "Being able to braid hair the way people like it—it's a passion. It takes a lot of practice and patience," she says. With her braiding income, Sylla supports herself and her three children.
The run-in with inspectors left her frightened and frustrated. To get a cosmetology licenses in Washington, you need to complete 1,600 hours of education at a community college or a trade school, and then pass a test. Cosmetology courses cover everything from waxing to pedicuring, but they don't always teach hair braiding.
Sylla knew that in 2004, another Seattle-area braider had successfully sued the state over licensing requirements. She researched the case online, found the braider had been represented by IJ, and contacted the firm. She says she wants Washington's laws on what hair braiders can and can't do to be clear, and to reflect what actually happens inside stores like hers.
IJ may be the only public-interest law firm of its kind. Launched with seed money from billionaire Charles Koch and funded by private donors, the organization represents clients suing in favor of school choice and against government seizure of private property, as well as challenging a wide range of regulations that can make it tough to start a business.
Current and former clients include Chicago food-truck owners protesting city vending laws, Louisianans who want to sell flowers without taking a flower-arranging exam, and Arizonans who want to start animal massage businesses without becoming veterinarians. Some clients request representation, like Sylla; sometimes IJ hears of a regulation and looks for an entrepreneur who wants to challenge it.
The argument IJ lawyers usually encounter is that occupational licenses are needed to protect public health and safety, says Dick Carpenter, the institute's director of strategic research. But governments generally create licenses in response to lobbying from industry groups. "The license is the fence around their occupation," he says, something big business creates to keep competitors out.
Hair-braiding regulations show how arbitrary the occupational licensing process can be. Braiders cannot work without a license in 39 states, with education requirements ranging from six hours in South Carolina to 2,100 in Iowa, according to IJ's findings. Twenty-four states require braiders to become licensed as cosmetologists or hairstylists.
In IJ's view, hair braiding poses no threat to public health and safety. Some braiders don't even use combs, let alone dangerous chemicals. They argue that consumers should be able to choose stylists on the free market without government interference.
The braiders IJ represents agree that their lawsuits are about economic liberty. "I say that braiding freedom is the new civil-rights movement. But that's not really hitting the hammer on the nail, says Isis Brantley, 56, a Dallas natural-hair-care guru. "Braiding freedom is to gain economic justice, economic liberation."
Entrepreneurs like Brantley feel they're part of a cultural struggle, too. Brantley has worn her own hair in a voluminous Afro for about 20 years, to show everyone that black hair is beautiful hair. Brantley calls African hair "the most profound hair in the world." It has a unique texture that, in America, has long been misunderstood or outright rejected by the dominant culture. Traditional braids and dreadlocks are still considered unprofessional and even banned in many settings—including, until recently, the U.S. military.
By teaching others how to style African hair traditionally, Brantley wants to both give them a livelihood and to spread respect for kinky and curly hair. With IJ's help, she's suing Texas over a requirement that practitioners must be state-licensed barber instructors (not necessarily hair braiders) in order to teach the 35-hour course required for a hair-braiding license. She wants to open her own natural-hair-care school.
IJ's hair-braider clients include Obama voters, Romney voters, and independents. They may not consider themselves activists, but they all want to take action against regulations they deem unfair. They want to get creative with customers' hair without inspectors challenging them. "I want to be able to work in peace, you know. I'm not asking for too much," Sylla says.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.