Paleo Politics and Free Speech

I’ve been contemplating the idea of sending out a weekly post with links to articles of interest. Specifically, I’ve been watching the US farm bill, some emerging issues in African agricultural microfinance and then this: Can the government throw you in jail for offering advice on the Internet about what food people should buy at the grocery store? Seriously?

Dashing off to get a Turkey Leg

Just 17 months ago, a diabetic blogger named Steve Cooksey began writing an advice column on his blog, diabetes-warrior.net. Specifically, Steve has endorsed a way of eating called  the Paleo diet as one that he believes has worked well based upon his own health goals and outcomes. Steve’s column is in response to reader questions and is written from his own experience. Based upon the popularity of his blog and his writings, Steve has also started a fee-based coaching service for individuals wanting more of his time. Sounds like the classic entrepreneur?

Apparently the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition has informed Steve that he is unable to give readers advice on diet, whether free or for compensation, because in doing so he is conducting the unlicensed, and therefore criminal, practice of dietetics. The North Carolina Board went on to tell Steve that even his private emails and telephone calls with readers and friends are illegal, as is his fee-based coaching. Steve was left with a red-lined document letting him know what he can and cannot say without a government-issued license from the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition.

Okay, first I do not follow a paleo diet although I know that many of you do. That’s mainly due to the fact that I eat little meat and love my pasta. Second, the law firm that Steve has turned to is called the Institute for Justice and is a libertarian public interest law firm. I also do not consider myself a libertarian however I do believe that this civil liberties law firm has stepped in to advocate for a blogger whose right to free speech is being challenged. Looking through their website, they have chapters of entrepreneurial defense, private property rights defense and yes, freedom of speech defense. Wiredmagazine said, the Institute for Justice “helps individuals subject to wacky government regulations.”

Here’s the story of their involvement with Steve:

Whether you’re a fan of Steve or not, it appears that a basic right is being challenged and since this one involves food, something that I take an interest in, I think it’s incumbent upon us to share this with other US bloggers who could easily find themselves in a similar situation. Please consider doing so.

Leave a comment

70 Comments

  1. Hmmm….interesting. I vote for Steve. If I were in a similar situation, looking for advice, i’d most certainly trust someone who has (successfully) gone through a process rather than listen to a doctor who most likely, has not. It is strange that under the NC laws, I probably could be jailed for giving out gardening and cooking advice, as I am neither a certified master gardener nor a professional chef. I could also be jailed for giving out home improvement advice as I am not a certified home improvement contractor.

    It sounds to me like someone in NC got jealous of the business Steve managed to build. Probably stepped on a few professional toes. A story to watch, for sure!

    Reply
  2. Great post Tammy! I have heard about this case with Steve before and find it very interesting… What ever happened to freedom of speech?! I shared it on my Facebook wall as well – have to get the word out!

    Reply
  3. Geez, I agree with Tracy…we have way too much interference with our lives now,

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com
    http://deltacountyhistoricalsociety.wordpress.com

    Reply
  4. Lisa H

     /  May 30, 2012

    So Steve researched his health options, came up with a plan, which works, and then started sharing it with others and eventually turned it into a business. Sounds similar to what many other entrepreneurs have done. Where do we draw the line? I firmly believe that Steve has the right to share what has personally worked for him. As long he is honest about his experience and credentials (or lack there-of), he should be free to voice his solution.
    –I love the photo!!!

    Reply
    • The photo is a classic. I agree that if Steve is upfront about his credentials and is clear that this has worked for him. It’s a memoir of sorts, isn’t it? The other thing is that I know of SO many people that have adopted a diet such as raw food and found it beneficial and are now making an income from showing their solutions to others.

      Reply
  5. And yet the government allows Monsanto to sneak its GMOs into the food supply without rigorous testing or documentation. Amazing! Thanks for the heads up on this case. I know some of my Paleo friends will be particularly interested.

    Reply
    • I seem to be coming across paleo with increased regularity so thought it would be useful to those folks as well as food bloggers that sometimes share nutritional advice.

      Reply
  6. DH

     /  May 30, 2012

    Unauthorized use of my likeness in a budding commercial endeavor. I may have to call my attorney.

    Reply
  7. Lots of food for thought.

    Reply
  8. whoa – isn’t this the same North Carolina which adopted that new invasive female ultrasound law? I’d wonder who’s electing these North Carolina Neanderthals, except I actually have alot of respect for our Neanderthal cousins. This is a worthy fight, imo.

    Reply
  9. Ya, and the same North Carolina that recently outlawed gay marriage – hmm my plans to move to Asheville may be subject to change… Yes, this is a clear civil liberties issue -w onder why the ACLU isn’t involved? TOTALLY agree with you, Tammy, and with lorrainemt’s comments. Sheesh stuff like this makes me think the Tea Party isn’t 100% nuts…

    Reply
    • So, you’ve hit on one of the things that I find so fascinating about this and that’s that it is a very conservative viewpoint defending Steve. Who knows Diane? Maybe an issue like this has the potential to bring people together.

      Reply
  10. An excellent topic for a post. I wonder if it all comes down to protectionism – the Institute wants to preserve it’s exclusive rights to giving out “advice”. So what would this Institute do if this blogger published a book? Burn it? Ok, maybe that’s a bit OTT, but you get my drift ! :) I’m off to check out Steve’s blog

    Reply
    • It’s the institute that is defending the blogger. It’s the government trying to intervene. Your point is well taken. What if he does seminars on his experience and charges people to attend or writes a book? They seem very similar activities to me.

      Reply
  11. I can understand they see a problem in that he’s taking money for offering nutritional advice when he’s not an RD. But overall, I find this whole case a bit silly. It definitely goes too far. And he’s not offering dubious stuff, because there’s scientific evidence that the Paleo diet helps with regulatic blood sugar levels, and many people (me included) can confirm that from their own experience.

    Reply
  12. Good post with lots to think about. Based on Claire’s question of a book (above) I just ran through the first pages of several specialized cookbooks…certainly not all written by nutritionists, dieticians or even chefs, but rather people sharing their own experience with food. I’m going to have a look at his blog, too. Thanks!

    Reply
    • That’s what intrigued me Cindy. Where is the line? I also have a lovely collection of cookbooks that are certainly not written by RDs but that do talk about the benefits of raw, macrobiotic, vegetarian, etc…

      Reply
  13. It’s mostly funny because so many people who are not RDs give nutritional advice: holistic health care providers, midwives, health coaches, personal coaches, life coaches, and many a superstar. Michelle Obama, anyone?

    They could sue some top nutritionists: Marion Nestle and Walter Willet among others. There have been some rumblings in the nutrition world about ignoring everyone who studies nutrition but chooses not to become an RD– the ADA has started an alternative membership to help make their professional group more inclusive, but it feels a little absurd to have an expensive lessor membership when I will (in the not too distant future) have more training than most RDs and already have more than some. Sociologists design nutrition interventions. Psychologists do, too.

    As long as he’s nore representing himself as having formal training he doesn’t, what’s the big deal? (On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t pay him for consulting.) Oh, he shouldn’t credit himself with being able to magically solve kidney disease, or something like that.

    Reply
    • I wouldn’t pay him either Stephanie but if what he is selling is advice that worked for him, I don’t know that I have a problem with him selling it. Of course if he’s promoting a cure for cancer or other miracle, I do have a problem. That’s the issue isn’t it? Where to draw the line.

      Reply
  14. Wow, this is really disconcerting. I often write about the issue of GMOs, which is nerve wracking enough, but now I have to worry about something as simple as suggesting readers eat more veggies. Not cool North Carolina, not cool.

    Reply
    • It definitely does mean that we can be challenged for writing about things that we believe in.

      Reply
  15. Thank you, Tammy, for keeping us informed. So many rules and regulations. We are probably all breaking something somewhere somehow! I hope to see how this turns out. I guess I wouldn’t think of it being wrong in any way, as long as he didn’t say he was licensed when he wasn’t. Then, isn’t it up to us to decide who we want to listen to? hmmm.

    Reply
    • I will try to report back on the outcome. Typically these types of lawsuits go on for a couple of years and yes, one can argue that it is up to us to decide who to listen to.

      Reply
  16. Renee

     /  May 30, 2012

    Wow, I had no idea this could happen. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Tammy. Love the work that Institute for Justice does!

    Reply
    • IJ does have some fascinating cases. What I love about their work is strict adherence to principles that really seem to unite people on both sides of the aisle.

      Reply
  17. Kevin

     /  May 30, 2012

    I work for a municipal agency, and often Iam in the position of implementing,explaining, and enforcing a variety of regulations. As such, I often find that people’s frustrations with regulations may stem from a lack of understanding of what the rules are, why they are that way, and what the broader context may be.
    I will speculate that the state in this case is trying to serve its responsibility to protect the public. Certainly there are plenty of people who may mislead others into harm for self serving reasons, or just from their own ignorance. The context, however, and the apparent handling of this case evokes an inate (in America anyway) revulsion to the misapplication of political power. We should not rush to condemn the actions of the state, though I fully endorse a wary willingness to challenge those actions.
    I think you are right in observing that the state appears to have engaged a First Amendment conflict. My own guess would be that they will lose on that matter.

    Reply
    • I agree with you Kevin. I believe there is a place for regulation and that would be especially true if Steve is falsely saying that he has credentials beyond his own experience or offering up a cure, etc.. It is a fine line.

      Reply
    • I’m an attorney, and if a blogger were offering legal advice for a fee without being a licensed attorney, they would be shut down by the state bar association. There is a reason why professions which require licensing to practice are so strict about this. You don’t want misleading or incorrect advice being spread by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Sure, someone may learn a lot from reading and personal research, but that can never equate the specialized knowledge and training of professional education. We spent many years and thousands and thousands of dollars to get the education needed to become licensed so we can advise clients. What is the point of all that time and effort if any Joe Schmoe with an internet connection can put themselves out there as a legal expert, or dietary expert in this case?

      Reply
      • I don’t disagree with you especially in the example that you share regarding your legal expertise. However, if I simply blogged about my experience in litigation and was upfront about the fact that I wasn’t an attorney, then I’m not sure I believe that should be prevented from sharing. It’s a fine line. Where I live, the current issue is around interior decorators. Do we believe that someone needs a license in order to show us how to organize furniture and decorate a room or should they be able to impart that type of advice without one?

        Reply
  18. Sounds ludicrous to me. Anoher move to quash the individual so that the corporations can clean up…

    Reply
  19. Hmmm…very interesting case. a single person is always an easier target than a corporation, in the interest of “protecting the public good.” I’m not a libertarian. I do see the need for regulations. But this seems like misspent energy on North Carolina’s part ( a state noted these days for reactionary policies)

    Reply
    • Yes, Nancy. You’re the third person to mention that NC is creating a reputation for itself these days.

      Reply
  20. That is amazing! I really cannot imagine someone’s experience being so regulated :)

    Reply
  21. Sally Mom

     /  May 31, 2012

    Really fascinating study, Tammy. I enjoyed reading all the comments and it does cause for more intense research. So many venues to look at and what about all those people in multi-level marketing companies, selling diet and nutrition products with out a license or experiance? I enjoyed Kevins’ response as well. All aspects need to be considered. But it is irritating to think that we can be penalized for helping people make better choices and research information on our own through the successes of others. I do it all the time. Hope I do not go to jail!

    Reply
    • Great point on the MLMs Sally. I think this NC action would very much call into question the work that you and others do.

      Reply
  22. There was a similar bill pending in Wisconsin. This is a good reminder to me to check the status. Excellent post.

    Reply
    • What was the bill? to limit the ability to talk about nutrition?

      Reply
      • I believe the original intent was to restrict the practice of nutrition by people other than Registered Dieticians. My understanding is that the language wound up so broad, that it was going to restrict much more–to the extent that messages like “eat whole natural foods” not delivered by an RD might be questionable. In searching around there was a lot of opposition mounted in 2010 and 2011 but I am not seeing much now. So even though I can’t find anything official, it is my guess it has died (or is sleeping). We just had to have special legislative action taken here because beer distributors were trying to get restrictions on craft beer producers and this would have severely impacted home brewers as well. The old adage that “freedom isn’t free” is certainly true.

        Reply
  23. Thanks so much for sharing this issue with us, Tammy.

    This article and video chat with Cooksey’s attorney is excellent:

    http://freetheanimal.com/2012/05/steve-cooksey-sues-the-north-carolina-board-of-dieteticsnutrition-in-federal-court-1st-amendment-free-speech.html

    Licensing regulations in the 50 states are extremely RANDOM and EXCESSIVE:

    For example ~ 6 years to become an Interior Designer (rearranging furniture) vs. 1 month to become an EMT (hold people’s lives in their hands).

    Reply
    • Good research Nancy. I find some of the IJ’s work fascinating. For example, in Minnesota, you have to have a beauty school license in order to braid hair for money yet the curriculum at beauty schools is devoid of braiding. IJ fought on behalf of the hair braiders and won. It will be interesting to see what they come up with in Steve’s case and in the case of the interior designers.

      Reply
  24. Good highlighting, Tammy. This becomes very scary. If people don’t speak up, we’ll get whatever is dished out with their seasoning. This is so retrograde.

    Reply
  25. I have mixed feelings on this one and it is not nearly so simple as it sounds.

    The Oprah beef disparagement lawsuit, food disparagement laws, national animal identification systems, Michigan’s Invasive Species Order, raw milk raids and ag gag bills frighten me much more.

    I worked as a licensed Realtor for many years and you cannot believe the professional handicaps caused by state licensing regulations forcing a ridiculous amount of disclosures and restricting conversations I was allowed to have. A realtor can’t even give directions to a property using a church as a landmark, or advertise that a property has a great view because some people are not able to see the view (I always wondered how they’d read the ad if they couldn’t see?). It gets ridiculous.

    Steve’s problem is likely due to the fact that he is collecting fees for his advice – if he restructured his business somehow, or became licensed, he wouldn’t be likely to be having this problem.

    Can’t he just get a license as all the other professionals are required to do?

    Reply
    • There are definitely examples all over of where regulation restricts and likely in a manner that it wasn’t intended to. Steve could get a license but it would involve going to school and sitting for an exam at his expense and it’s highly likely that the curriculum that he would have to study wouldn’t have anything about paleo in it.

      Reply
      • Just like every single other person required to maintain a professional license.

        I wouldn’t be against eliminating most of these state mandated licenses. As you say, the curriculum is mostly irrelevant to the actual work. But there is an underlying and valid reason that each of these professional licenses exists, unfortunately they usually outlive their necessity and become ridiculous and cumbersome.

        Much of it has to do with satisfying errors and omissions insurance requirements as well. If Steve gave bad advice and was sued, he’d be in a world of trouble…

        Reply
  26. Good food for thought. My view runs between LiveOakLinda, Stephanie, and Kevin. Sure, we should all be free to talk about our own experience (and even charge a fee for that if we like), but at the same time I understand the State wanting to protect its citizens by not allowing unqualified/unlicensed people handing out medical advice. In many people’s minds, an internet consultancy is the new office visit after all. Having said that, this whole controversy might be resolved if Cooksey includes a clear and obvious disclaimer on his web site – standard practice for businesses of any kind before charging for services (just the verbiage varies).

    Reply
    • Good point. I wonder if a disclaimer would change things. I’m sure the regulation was intended for good but sometimes we force fit things when they really don’t work together.

      Reply
  27. I vote for Steve. It’s one thing to require a license for something like medicine or nursing, or even massage. But it’s something else altogether to require a license to talk about food and personal experience. I can see a bit of a problem if he’s charging for consultations and delivering medical advice, but to say: “This is my experience, this is what I did, these are the results I got” should be protected by the 1st Amendment.

    If North Carolina wins, won’t be able to sell many food-related books in North Carolina. Maybe that’s the idea: Maybe state wants to force feed us all industrial-manufactured food products as a repayment for campaign donations by corporate “food.” (Sarcasm intended).

    Reply
  28. Oh my gosh! I haven’t heard about this. I feel like those ‘experts’ in charge (in all areas, not only food) are really getting scared when it comes to the democracy of the internet.

    Reply
  29. Thank you for the thoughtful articles… especially this one, Tammy! I hereby nominate you for the “One Lovely Blog Award”! You are #14 on our list of nominees, in no particular order. Enjoy!! (http://biocadence.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/one-lovely-blog-award/)… I hope you’ll follow the tradition of the “One Lovely Blog Award”… I’d LOVE to see what you do with it!!!!

    Annie Tichenor- Biocadence, LLC

    Reply
  30. I call shenanigans!!!!!

    I refuse to accept that any organization sponsored by among others –

    Coke/Pepsi (sugar, no nutrition, gobbling up water)
    Hershey/Mars (poorly sourced chocolate, sugar, unsound labor practices)
    The National Dairy Council (pro-growth hormone)
    Cargill/Unilever (pro-GMO)
    General Mills/Kellogg’s (nutrient-deficient processed foods)
    Truvia (concentrated sweetness much worse than sugar)

    – has any right to be the authority over what is nourishing and healthy. I’ve written about the ADA/AND on my website and have pulled no punches. What they are doing is detrimental to health and wellness and their advice is far from sound.

    Even the URL of EatRight is misleading.

    http://www.eatright.org/corporatesponsors/

    Reply
    • I’m for appropriate licensing but this borders on invasion of my freedoms. it will be interesting to see how history books paint some of this.

      Reply
  1. Free | 366in2012
  2. Dispensing Advice Without a Licence « Nothing Was Delivered

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