Steve Cooksey has a pretty great name for a food blogger. He does not, however, have such great luck. A former diabetic who’s documented his diet, disease and dramatic weight loss at Diabetes-Warrior.net, Cooksey was targeted by the state of North Carolina for “providing nutrition care services without a license.” Under the logic of the state’s complaint, just about all of us here at Blisstree are breaking the law.
The back-story: Once upon a time, Cooksey weighed 235 pounds, had high blood pressure and cholesterol and required four insulin shots per day. After embracing a paleo diet and a fitness regimen, he lost 70 pounds, got his blood pressure and cholesterol back to optimal levels and essentially “cured” himself of diabetes. Since 2009, he has been telling his story — as well as offering diet and fitness advice — on a personal blog/website.
The problem: Cooksey is a resident of North Carolina. In North Carolina, a law says that “assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups” without a license is a crime. According to the New York Times, “many other states license nutritionists and dietitians, but the North Carolina law seems to be among the stricter ones.”
In January 2012, Charla M. Burill, the executive director of the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition, contacted Cooksey with concerns about his blog and sent him annotated pages from it pointing out some of the alleged infractions. Of particular issue was a new column in which Cooksey answered readers’ questions about diabetes.
“If 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,” Burill wrote. “There is a difference between writing a blog on your beliefs regarding a vegan diet and telling someone else what (sic) they should.”
But is there really? And who determines that difference? Because a good portion of the Internet is made up of people telling their own personal stories and extrapolating from there. Some of it is good extrapolation, good advice; some of it is awful, uninformed and even potentially dangerous advice. Most Americans would agree that, either way, it’s covered by the First Amendment, as long as nobody’s misrepresenting where the advice is coming from.
And that’s exactly what Cooksey and his lawyers, from the Institute for Justice, are arguing.
The push back: After making Burill’s suggested changes, Cooksey filed a lawsuit in the federal district court in Charlotte saying his First Amendment rights had been violated.
“Cooksey’s advice,” his lawyers wrote, “ultimately amounts to recommendations about what to buy at the grocery store — more steaks and avocados and less pasta, for example. The First Amendment simply does not allow North Carolina to criminalize something as commonplace as advice about diet.”
The suit also argues that the North Carolina law interferes with the marketplace of ideas. Cooksey never claimed to have any sort of expertise he doesn’t have, never claimed to be a dietitian or doctor or nutritionist. He was not attempting to advise people in a clinical or institutional setting, and his audience (readers of his blog) was a self-elected crew. As Karen Gale, who received advice from Cooksey after getting to know him on Facebook, said in a statement:
“I am in disbelief that in the United States it is against the law for a friend to give another friend uncompensated advice about what food to eat.”
Cooksey told the New York Times: “I hope we lose in the first round. I hope we go to the Supreme Court. Our blog traffic has gone through the roof.”
Photo courtesy Nanine Hartzenbusch Photography