I’m a REAL FOOD, health, and nutrition blogger, so this story really hit me hard. Blogger Steve Cooksey is diabetic and when he found no relief from conventional treatment, he determined to try another way–a strict, very low-carb, paleo diet–and, so far, he says it’s worked. He lost a lot of weight and now claims he has normal blood glucose and takes no drugs or insulin. As a result of his success, he developed a website, Diabetes-Warrior.net, to share with others the nutrition information that worked for him. What’s the problem? Apparently he caught the attention of the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition (NCBDN) by speaking up at a January 2012 nutrition seminar in Charlotte, NC. Cooksey says about the speaker, director of diabetic services for a local hospital, “She was giving all the wrong information, just like everyone does–carbs are OK to eat, we must eat carbs to live, promoting low-fat, etc.” A few days later the director of the NCBDN told him his website was being examined, suggesting he “bring it into compliance.” Cooksey said, “Basically, she told me I could not give out nutritional advice without a license.”
Charla Burill, director of NCBDN’s board, provided an review of Cooksey’s website (posted by Cooksey) with detailed notes that repeatedly said he should not be “advising,” “counseling,” “assessing” or answering specific questions without a license. “Chapter 90, Article 25 of the North Carolina General Statutes makes it a misdemeanor to ‘practice dietetics or nutrition’ without a license. According to the law, ‘practicing’ nutrition includes ‘assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups’ and ‘providing nutrition counseling.'” You are probably asking why he doesn’t have a disclaimer. Well, he does! Cooksey’s website has a disclaimer page that says he is not a doctor, he has no formal nutrition training, he does not give personal advice, and the information is for educational purposes ONLY. In addition, at the bottom of every web page, he has this statement: “I am not a doctor, dietician nor nutritionist…in fact I have no medical training of any kind. . . .” You would think that would clear anything he says, but here’s what probably irritated the NCBDN: the next words after his disclaimer at the bottom of every page, “If I can figure this out so should they… if it wasn’t for their … A) Intellectual Laziness B) Willful ignorance C) Greed D) All of the above :)”
But this isn’t really about licensing, this is an issue of free speech. Steve Cooksey doesn’t claim to be a doctor or even a nutritionist. In fact, he just about plasters his disclaimer all over his website. So what’s wrong with suggesting to others to follow a diet plan that worked for him? What’s wrong with pointing out that ‘official’ advice doesn’t work? James Skyles is the principal attorney at Skyles Law Group, LLC, which addresses the legal issues of cyber law. Here’s his opinion about the situation:
A couple of key points. If Cooskey [sic] was offering paid services then the state would have a case. However, blogging would have nothing to do with the paid services, the paid service itself would be the violation. Anyone can offer lay opinion. News editorials offer lay opinion on legal issues all the time (and they are more often than not wrong). Are they practicing law without a license? Clearly not. Their activity is covered by the first amendment. The same applies here.
On my blog, on posts where I opine on legal situations, I always include a disclaimer stating that the information contained is not legal advice, and that the reader should consult a lawyer before doing anything. If Cooskey’s [sic] disclaimer is not enough, then what is to say my disclaimer is enough, should someone decide to act on the advice given?
The North Carolina NCBDN is apparently saying to bloggers that having a disclaimer is not enough, and as James Skyles says, all bloggers, not just health and nutrition bloggers, could be in the target zone. Yes, this IS a free speech issue.
For the future, Steve Cooksey is hoping that all the attention to his website may be a good thing. Here’s what he has to say about the issue:
Update, June 15, 2012: The Institute for Justice (IJ) reports that Steve Cooksey has joined with them to file a major First Amendment lawsuit against the State Board in federal court. “This lawsuit seeks to answer one of the most important unresolved questions in First Amendment law: When does the government’s power to license occupations trump free speech?”
Update, March 5, 2013: A great video depicts Steve Cooksey’s problems with the NCBDN.
Dr. Mercola has written about the free speech issue and has updates about Steve Cooksey’s lawsuits and continuing struggles with the NCBDN, which, it turns out is a chapter of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly known as American Dietetic Association (ADA). Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Threatens Your First Amendment Rights and Attempts to Censor Paleo Blogger
Update June 27, 2013: Steve Cooksey, who sued the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition for violating his First Amendment right of free speech, has been given the go-ahead by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Initially the suit had been dismissed by a federal district judge. The appeals board included former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Free Speech Victory!