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Criminalizing Dear Abby

10:32 AM, May 31, 2012 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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Some people take to Twitter and Facebook to voice complaints. Others use social media for the greater good, offering advice to the complainers. But that sort of counsel is illegal—at least according to one state agency.

The Institute for Justice yesterday filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition, alleging that the state board violated the First Amendment when it silenced a man who started a blog to spread the low-carb gospel.

The libertarian law firm describes client Steve Cooksey as a “caveman blogger” in Stanley, North Carolina. He launched his blog, Diabetes Warrior, two years ago to share how he lost 78 pounds and got his diabetes under control by following the Paleo Diet. In February 2009, Cooksey, then in his late 40s, spent four days in intensive care when doctors discovered he was on the verge of a diabetic coma. He was diagnosed with type-II diabetes, and a licensed dietician advised him to start eating a low-fat, high-carb diet.

But Cooksey was skeptical. He did his own research, and found that some diabetics had done very well—losing weight and becoming less insulin-dependent—on the Paleolithic diet of our ancient ancestors. The Paleo diet has become the hot successor to Atkins, with its pre-agricultural focus on meat, eggs, and leafy green vegetables.

The formerly obese man lost 78 pounds—and, with physician approval, stopped taking insulin and other medications.

With such great results, Cooksey, like many converts, decided he had to evangelize. He started a blog and, eventually, a free advice column encouraging others to go Stone Age. His counsel became popular enough that he started a modest “Diabetes Support” life-coaching service.

Until the state Board of Dietetics/Nutrition caught wind of it, that is. The board accused Cooksey of practicing dietetics without a license—though, as the court filing indicates, his “website has a disclaimer informing readers that he has no special dietary qualifications and is a layperson.” And it wasn’t just the paid life-coaching business to which the agency objected. The board’s director emailed Cooksey a 19-page document of excerpts from his website, with red pen marks “to indicate what Plaintiff Cooksey is and is not allowed to say in North Carolina without a dietitian’s license.”

The state board declared that Cooksey couldn’t even offer free and private advice to his friends over the phone. With that kind of legal standard, who among us would not be a criminal?

IJ fights regularly against regulations that make it difficult for Americans to earn a living. Many occupational licensing requirements weren’t put into place to make consumers safer; they’re often enacted to protect one class of business at the expense of another. It’s much easier for big businesses to comply with sometimes-costly regulations than it is for small independents.

That might be what’s behind North Carolina’s campaign against this blogger. Cooksey first heard from the state board just a few days after he attended a diabetic nutritional seminar at a local church. During the question-and-answer session, he expressed his disagreement with the view of the speaker—the director of diabetic services at a nearby hospital—that diabetics can eat anything they want, but should focus on whole-grain carbs and avoid fat. Someone from the seminar filed a complaint with the state board, charging that Cooksey was acting as an unlicensed dietician.

IJ has more details on the case here.

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