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May. 31, 2012
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Can the government throw you in jail for offering advice on the Internet about what food people should buy at the grocery store?
That is exactly the claim made by the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition. In December 2011, diabetic blogger Steve Cooksey started a Dear Abby-style advice column on his popular blog (www.diabetes-warrior.net) to answer reader questions. One month later, the State Board informed Steve that he could not give readers advice on diet, whether for free or for compensation, because doing so constituted the unlicensed, and thus criminal, practice of dietetics. The State Board also told Steve that his private emails and telephone calls with readers and friends were illegal, as was his paid life-coaching service. The State Board went through Steve's writings with a red pen, indicating what he may and may not say without a government-issued license.
But the First Amendment does not allow the government to ban people from sharing ordinary advice about diet, or scrub the Internet—from blogs to Facebook to Twitter—of speech the government does not like. North Carolina can no more force Steve to become a licensed dietitian than it could require Dear Abby to become a licensed psychologist.
That is why on May 30, 2012, Steve Cooksey joined the Institute for Justice in filing a major free speech lawsuit against the State Board in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Charlotte Division. This lawsuit seeks to answer one of the most important unresolved questions in First Amendment law: When does the government's power to license occupations trump free speech?