Thursday, September 27, 2012

North Carolina Government Busybodies Take Aim at Free Speech

George Will has an interesting column today on the efforts of a North Carolina government agency to monitor a blogger writing about nutrition.  It raises some interesting First Amendment issues.  My guess is that the busybodies are going to lose this one:
Steve Cooksey

RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina is giving Steve Cooksey some choices. He can stop speaking. Or he can get a Ph.D. in nutrition, or a medical degree, or a bachelor's degree in nutrition and then pass an examination after completing a 900-hour clinical internship. Or he can skip this onerous credentialing, keep speaking, and risk prosecution.
He has chosen instead to get a lawyer. His case, argued by the libertarians at the Institute for Justice (IJ), will clarify the First Amendment's relevance to an ancient human behavior and a modern technolgy. 
Four years ago, Cooksey was a walking -- actually, barely walking -- collection of health risks. He was obese, lethargic, asthmatic, chronically ill and pre-diabetic. The diet advice he was getting from medical and other sources was, he decided, radically wrong. Rather than eat a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet, he adopted what he and other enthusiasts call a Paleolithic diet, eating as primitive humans did -- e.g., beef, pork, chicken, leafy green vegetables. Cooksey lost 75 pounds and the need for drugs and insulin. And, being a modern Paleo, he became a blogger, communicating his dietary opinions.
When a busybody notified North Carolina's Board of Dietetics/Nutrition that Cooksey was opining about which foods were and were not beneficial, the board launched a three-month investigation of his Internet writings and his dialogues with people who read and responded to them. The board sent him copies of his writings, with red pen markings of such disapproved postings as: "I do suggest that your friend eat as I do and exercise the best they can."   
"If," the board sternly said, "people are writing you with diabetic specific questions and you are responding, you are no longer just providing information -- you are counseling -- you need a license to provide this service." This had the intended effect of chilling his speech; his self-censorship stopped his blog. By saying his bloggings will be subject to continuous review, North Carolina hopes to silence him in perpetuity.
IJ's Jeff Rowes notes that Cooksey's speech "involves no sensitive relationship (as in psychological counseling), no uniquely vulnerable listeners (as in potential legal clients forced to make snap decisions), and no plausible presumption that the listeners are unable to exercise independent judgment." That presumption is, however, the animating principle of modern regulatory government. North Carolina is uninterested in the fact that Cooksey's advice is unpaid, freely solicited and outside any context of a professional-client relationship. The state simply asserts that Cooksey's audience is "a uniquely vulnerable population," which is how paternalistic government views everybody all the time. 
Were Cooksey blogging for profit to sell beef and other Paleolithic food, he would be free to advise anyone to improve their health by buying his wares. So his case raises two questions:   Is an individual's uncompensated advice, when volunteered to other individuals who seek and value it, constitutionally protected? And does the Internet -- cost-free dissemination of speech to spontaneous, self-generated audiences -- render many traditional forms of licensing obsolete? 
...
Did Ann Landers and Dear Abby conduct 50-year crime sprees by offering unlicensed psychological advice? ... 
To see the rest of Will's article, which discusses the various legal review standards used, click here.

To see Mr. Cooksey's blog, click here.

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