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Paleo Diet Blogger Suing State for Free Speech Rights, Hopes Case Reaches Supreme Court

"People are allowed to give other people advice."

In April, TheBlaze reported about a blogger who was being told the tips he was giving about the paleo diet violated state law. It was a topic he was writing on due to his own success at using it to manage diabetes naturally.

The North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition (NCBDN) is now being sued with a case citing the protection of free speech. Others are also calling out the national body governing the state board, which issued the DiabetesWarrior.net blogger 19 pages of notes marking violations in January, as creating a monopoly that would give only licensed dietitians the right to provide nutrition advice.

The Institute of Justice filed a lawsuit for Steve Cooksey against the state board in May after Cooksey was told he could not give the type of advice he issuing on his blog Diabetes Warrior without a license. Watch the Institute of Justice's animate clip on Cooksey's case:

NCBDN states, according to its definition of nutritional care, Cooksey was at the time violating the law with the advice he was providing without a license. The board never made a decision to take legal action to require Cooksey to have a license.

In response to Cooksey saying he felt he was being censored by the NCBDN, the organization issued a statement saying:

Of his own volition, upon being informed of the complaint against him, Mr. Cooksey made changes to his site, including, making his disclaimer that he is not a licensed dietitian/nutritionist more prominent and taking down his diabetes support packages. Later, Mr. Cooksey was sent a document detailing some of the Board’s concerns regarding his past interactions with some of his followers, however, this document was sent attached to an email that stated, “[g]iven our discussion, I believe our comments should make sense, however, should you disagree, I am happy to discuss.” Mr. Cooksey never contacted the NCBDN to discuss these comments. The NCBDN never ordered Mr. Cooksey to make any changes to his website.

With regard to whether Cooksey needs a license in the first place, the statement reads a license is needed within the state if nutritional care is being given, which includes the following activities:

• Assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups, and determining resources and constraints in the practice setting.

• Establishing priorities, goals, and objectives that meet nutritional needs and are consistent with available resources and constraints.

• Providing nutrition counseling in health and disease.

• Developing, implementing, and managing nutrition care systems.

The board later closed it complaint against Cooksey because it decided he was making strides comply with the law.

More recently, the New York Times featured Cooksey's story and the board declined to comment on the case at this time. Cooksey on the other hand is speaking, noting his blog's traffic has "gone through the roof" due to the case and saying he hopes to lose in the first round in order to bring the issue to the Supreme Court.

Jeff Rowes, one of Cooksey's lawyers from the Institute for Justice, said he understands the need for licensing those in settings where people surrender their own judgement to an expert, but sees a blog as not this setting.

"People are allowed to give other people advice," he said.

Although the board never took any true legal action against Cooksey and it may not have forced him to change content on his site, Michael Ellsberg, writing as a contributor for Forbes (via Reason) last month, reported that leaked documents from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which created state boards like NCBDN, may provide an "important twist on this developing free speech story." Here are two choice topics from the documents that Ellsberg calls out:

  • Openly discusses creating and using state boards of dietetics/nutrition (including in NC and in every other state in the union) for the express purpose of limiting market competition for its Registered Dietitian members.
  • Openly discusses a nation-wide plan of surveying and reporting private citizens, and particularly all competitors on the market for nutrition counseling, for “harming the public” by providing nutrition information/advice/counseling without a license—through exactly the same means by which Cooksey was reported to the NC Board. Again, for the explicit purpose of limiting marketplace competition.

Baylen Linnekin with the nonprofit Keep Food Legal writes on Reason that this "just one example of a larger trend." That trend being "the many often-terrible ways government has skewed Americans' dietary choices," which he will be speaking about on a panel this month.

Cooksey's date in court is not yet set but he is back to blogging again. Last week, he posted his first article on the blog since May, not getting into the investigation itself but reflecting on where he has come since discovering "primal living." Before adopting a "paleo lifestyle," Cooksey was overweight with Type 2 diabetes and on insulin. Taking control of his exercise and diet plan, Cooksey now is a healthy weight and no longer takes insulin, maintaining a healthy blood sugar level naturally.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Steve Cooksey's name.

(H/T: NPR)

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