Dietitian Licensing Board Attempts To Limit Free Speech, Silence Bloggers

Have you ever given someone advice on how to lose weight through dietary changes? Have you ever recommended that certain foods could be consumed or avoided to aid in sleep, stress, or intestinal issues? Well then, according to the North Carolina Board of Dietetics and Nutrition, you should be thrown in jail for up to a month and a half. Now, newly leaked documents prove what many suspected from the beginning: the effort to silence unlicensed dietitians and online bloggers giving nutritional advice is all about eliminating competition for the Board of Dietetics’ licensed members.

The issue received national attention earlier this year after Steve Cooksey, an online blogger promoting the “Paleo” diet, received a letter from the Board of Dietetics telling him that his blog violated state law. By providing advice on his blog for free  and also providing coaching for a fee, the Board of Dietetics claimed he was guilty of practicing unlicensed dietetics, a crime worthy of fines, court orders to cease and desist, and even jail time. The Institute for Justice has taken up Cooksey’s case and they are fighting the charges of the Board on the grounds that such application of the law violates his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. According to IJ, not only did the Board demand that Cooksey cease his only advice giving, but that he may not even provide nutritional advice in private! According to IJ, the Board of Dietetics and Nutrition also told Steve that his private emails and telephone calls with friends and readers were illegal. The Board also ordered him to shut down his life-coaching service.

And while Cooksey is being challenged by a state board of licensed dietitians, it is important to remember that there is a nationwide effort to clamp down on unlicensed competition through legal and legislative means.

Author Michael Ellsberg has investigated the issue for Forbes. In a recent article, he exposed documents that had been leaked by a disgruntled member of the American Dietetic Association apparently unhappy with the behavior of their leadership. Some of the juiciest bits Ellsberg highlights, clearly show that the ADA’s intent is not to protect public safety and not even to provide value for their members: the letters show that ADA’s primary focus is on protecting the perceived value of licensing and to limit competition.

Part of the document even details a secret group within the ADA tasked with creating model legislation featuring strict licensure laws similar to those in North Caroline that the Association could push for in every state. They even provide assistance for state chapters as they hire lobbyists and work their proposals through state legislatures.

The document states:

Key components of the dietetics licensure statutes include: title protection, scope of practice, practice exclusivity clause [the clause that got Cooksey], operations of licensure board [the board that got Cooksey]. . . .

It is important that dietetics licensure acts maximize the registered dietitian’s unique skills and expertise in the scope of practice. All registered dietitians and dietetic technicians, registered need to be mindful in these competitive times that other practitioners are seeking expansion of their services, creating “scope creep”.

Yes, there’s definitely something creepy about all of this. But it gets worse. As Ellsberg works through the leaked documents he hits on the scariest plans of the ADA: their detailed strategy of seeking out citizens who give dietary advice and reporting them.

The document says it plain and clear: the reason to surveil and report citizens who provide public nutrition advice (people like Steve Cooksey) is not that there’s any evidence that these citizens actually harm the public. Rather, the reason to surveil and report citizens like Cookey is that doing so is necessary to maintain licensure laws (which were designed by the ADA explicitly to limit market competition.)

While all of this may seem shocking — it is nothing new. This kind of regulatory attempt at protectionism among associations of licensed professionals has been going on forever.

IJ has taken up cases in many states where licenses professionals either abuse laws or push for legislation that will clamp down on competitors. For example, horse floaters (aka horse dentists) have been threatened by veterinarians associations for practicing their trade without a license. And as I have written, optometrists and other eye care providers have recently faced legislative challenges from ophthalmologists. Always, these efforts appear under the guise of consumer safety. Almost always, they are really about limiting competition — not just to their members, but also to the very idea of licensing.

If one can work as a dietician without jumping through the hoops and paying the fees necessary to obtain and retain a license, then the organization itself will see its membership and thus its profits diminish. So they will do anything and say anything to pass legislation to prevent that from happening. If such regulatory machinations are necessary to maintain the value of licenses, perhaps we ought to be asking if we should have mandatory licensing at all. In the meantime, it’s up to all of us to point out these obviously freedom stomping efforts to our lawmakers and let them know that if they do dole out favors to professional associations at the cost of consumer freedom and our rights to free speech, it will not go unnoticed.