Government is Twisted—An Excerpt from “Modern Davids”


April 24, 2024 10:09AM

In celebration of Beacon’s 20th Anniversary, Beacon President and CEO Justin Owen wrote a book called Modern Davids: Celebrating 20 Years with 20 Stories of Everyday Tennesseans Fighting Big Government. We will be sharing an excerpt from the book each month to tell you more about our heroes. The book is out now! You can secure your copy by clicking here.

Those familiar with Beacon know that we have long exposed the harm that can be done by occupational licensing red tape. Despite being known for its pro-business environment, Tennessee has some of the most onerous licensing regulations in the country. As a result, those in two hundred sixty different jobs must get government permission to work.

Sadly, licensing has an outsized negative impact on lower-income workers and minorities. But there are now fewer licensing laws on the books harming them thanks to a group of women who stood up to bullies and bureaucrats.

In 2015, Beacon launched a legal arm and added a team of attorneys to our ranks to represent Tennesseans whose rights had been violated by government overreach. One of our first clients was Tammy Pritchard from Memphis. Tammy, a school resource officer, wanted to wash hair in her sister Debra’s salon as a side job to help make ends meet. But she was forbidden from doing so under Tennessee’s “shampoo technician” license, which required three hundred hours of schooling before washing anyone else’s hair in exchange for payment.

Even worse, because no cosmetology school offered this coursework, Tammy would have been forced to get a full cosmetology license after going to school for 1,500 hours and paying as much as $35,000 in tuition just to wash hair.

Tammy’s sister Debra had pioneered the natural hair braiding movement in Memphis and had built a successful business of her own. But she was practically run out of Tennessee for her entrepreneurial spirit. Like hair washing, Tennessee required a license to braid hair, even though no chemicals, scissors, or any other potentially harmful items are used in the practice. Due to Tennessee’s licensing regime, Debra was forced to pack up and move across the border to Mississippi rather than continue to practice her trade in her own community.

Debra and Tammy were tenacious. Debra was a determined to move back home to hire women in her own neighborhood and teach them to braid hair. And Tammy wouldn’t take no for an answer, either. She wanted to sue the state, arguing that there was no rational reason to require a government license to wash hair. We agreed, so we took her case. The day we launched Tammy’s case, her story was featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today. The office of then-Gov. Bill Haslam was a tad unhappy with us for drawing such mocking attention to the state with headlines like “Shampooing without a license could mean jail time in Tennessee.” But to his credit, the governor swiftly proposed legislation to do away with the ridiculous license, and legislators soon adopted it.

Tammy was now free to work in Debra’s salon, but Debra couldn’t move back home just yet; the state still required a license to braid hair. Our work was not quite done. Debra built an army of passionate warriors for freedom, some three-dozen women who showed up at the state Capitol every week to advocate for their right to earn a living braiding hair.

The opposition was palpable. You see, unlike with the shampooing license, cosmetology schools had created coursework and charged tuition to get the schooling needed to obtain a hair braiding license. These entrenched Goliaths fought relentlessly to maintain their revenue stream. Rather than ask why the government should shut these Tennesseans out of a job they love, they asked what would happen to these poor schools if they can no longer charge tuition to get a license?

Opponents even perpetuated false and outrageous claims, saying the license prevents ill-trained braiders from dumping boiling water on the heads of customers, and one even had the audacity to claim—in public during a legislative committee hearing—that the hair braiding license prevented the spread of AIDS. You can’t make this stuff up.

But our team of hair braiders stood firm in the face of such mockery. They told their stories of how braiding would give them a lifetime of success as entrepreneurs. Fatou Diouf testified about how she had learned to braid hair at three-years-old in her native Senegal. When she emigrated to America to attend the University of Tennessee, she attempted to use her knowledge to braid hair to pay her way through school. But due to Tennessee’s asinine license, she had to drop out of college and enroll in cosmetology school to get her license to earn a living.

After opening her own shop, Fatou believed that she could hire other braiders to work under her since she now had her license. But she was sorely mistaken. The Tennessee Cosmetology Board fined Fatou $16,000 for hiring unlicensed braiders to work under her, a sum she spent years paying off in monthly installments.

For the opponents, this was about protecting their bottom line. For hair braiders, this was about culture. It was about opportunity. It was about freedom. That’s hard to fight against. And that’s why they won.

Like with the shampoo license, legislators repealed the hair braiding license in 2019. Just two years later, the number of practicing braiders in the state grew from just one hundred twenty under the licensing regime to nearly 2,000 without it. That’s 2,000 more jobs, businesses, and employers hiring others in their communities, all the result of a few dozen women refusing to stand down when confronted by Big Government.