Another Woman Threatened with Jail Time for Giving Diet Tips without a License

(Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
This a ridiculous, if not abusive, use of law-enforcement resources.

A Mississippi woman was threatened with jail time for trying to make some money helping people lose weight, because she didn’t have the proper license to do so.

According to a piece in Reason, Donna Harris is “a personal trainer and fitness expert” who has been running a health-and-fitness-themed Facebook page since 2018. At the beginning of this year, she decided to try and make some money off her efforts — by offering weight-loss advice to anyone who’d pay $99 to join her eight-week weight-loss contest.

Now, this doesn’t seem like too bad an idea (it was, at the very least, a seemingly innocuous one), but the state disagreed, shutting it down before she even had the chance to launch it.

Yep: Harris was sent a cease-and-desist on January 22 from the Mississippi Department of Health, warning her that what she was doing was a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

“When I learned I would have to cancel my weight-loss class, I was devastated,” said Harris in a statement. “People were counting on me and they were so excited about learning how to lose weight in a healthy way, and they were so disappointed when I told them I was not going to be able to go through with the program.”

Now, the “crime” here was that Harris was allegedly posing as an “unlicensed dietitian” — but, as Reason notes, this is objectively false. Harris, in fact, had actually explicitly stated on both her website and her Facebook page that she is not licensed.

That was, apparently, not enough for the state government to consider her anything less than a criminal too dangerous to walk the streets unchecked.

If Harris had been, let’s say, kidnapping people and driving them to the desert to scream her unlicensed diet tips at them at gunpoint until they produced $99 to make her stop, then I would understand why incarceration would be part of the conversation.

As it stands? It’s absurd.

The point of the police, after all, is supposed to be to protect and to serve citizens — and I don’t understand how that could ever possibly translate into needing to threaten someone with incarceration, because she had been trying to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with consenting adults, with the goal of improving the diet and health of the citizens of one of the most obese states in the nation.

Even worse is the fact that Harris isn’t the only woman to ever go through this. In 2017, I wrote a piece about a woman in Florida who was dealing with the exact same threat for the exact same reason.

There are some professions, of course, where licensing is important. For example: If there’s someone out there claiming to be a top heart surgeon whose only qualifications are having played Operation as a child, then I’m going to have a problem with that. I’m definitely going to say that jail time is appropriate in this instance.

This, however, isn’t that. For one thing, Harris was open about the fact that she didn’t have a license, and all of her potential clients had consented to pay for her services with full knowledge of that fact. Second? Nutrition advice is, quite frankly, subjective. Think about it: There are some licensed dietitians out there who will tell you to make whole grains and lean meats a staple of your diet, and other licensed dietitians who will tell you that both gluten and meats of all kinds will give you inflammation and cancer.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in finding this a ridiculous, if not abusive, use of law-enforcement resources. Last week, the Mississippi Justice Institute filed a lawsuit on Harris’s behalf arguing that the state’s actions violated Harris’s First Amendment rights.

From Reason:

Aaron Rice, the group’s director, is particularly galled by what happened when Harris asked the state what information she could legally provide without a license. She was told to stick to “government-approved guidelines, like the food pyramid,” Rice says. “So you can engage in government-approved speech, but not non-government-approved speech?”

According to Reason, the proper licensing necessary to give your own diet advice in Mississippi requires “a bachelor’s degree and more than 1,200 hours of supervised practice,” and, starting in 2024, it will also require a graduate degree — and not just any graduate degree, either. Harris, in fact, has a master’s degree in occupational therapy and a bachelor’s in nutrition and food science, but that still doesn’t meet the specific requirements for the state.

I just have to ask: Whom is this helping? How can anyone possibly justify something this stupid?

After all, as it stands, Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country. The state should be taking steps to rectify this problem, and certainly not trying to worsen it by making it even easier to wind up behind bars — especially if the “crime” in question is talking about food.


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