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John Stossel
John Stossel
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Bad Rules


We take free speech for granted in America, unlike elsewhere. The furor over that anti-Muslim video is the latest reminder of that.

But freedom of speech is never safe, even here. Many colleges now impose "civility codes." Civility is nice, but enforcing a "civility rule" against offensive speech would put an end to lots of useful provocative speech. As a University of North Carolina student put it, "A picture of Mitt Romney would offend 70 percent of residence hall students."

Taping my Fox Business Network show at UNC, I also learned that the college, to "protect" women, had dropped the word "freshman." The PC term is now "first year." UNC also decreed that no student may "implicitly" or "explicitly" ask for sex. (Then how do students get it?)

Since sexual activity on campus continues, it's clear that such rules are often ignored. But there is danger in selectively enforced rules. They let authorities punish those with unpopular ideas.

While in North Carolina, we ran across other assaults on freedom of speech. Steve Cooksey started a blog about low-carb nutrition, which included "Dear Abby"-style advice. The state told him that giving such advice without a license is illegal! Cooksey stopped, but enlisted help from the Institute for Justice, the libertarian public-interest law group. Together they sued the state for the free-speech violation. Unfortunately, a federal court dismissed the suit, saying that since the state took no formal action, Cooksey was not harmed. IJ will appeal.

My staff ran his advice by a Harvard nutritionist, who said it was reasonable. But even if it wasn't — even if it was stupid — people know that there's plenty of garbage on the Internet.

"Why is it against the law to tell people to avoid grains?" Cooksey asked. "To tell diabetics to reduce carbs to help them normalize their blood sugar? Why is that wrong?" It's "wrong" when politicians are eager to control everything — even speech about food.

IJ lawyer Paul Sherman said "it would cost Steve thousands of dollars, and take years of his life, to get the dietitian license."

Not only that, it would take 900 hours of apprenticeship even after Cooksey got his degree.

"Anyone who wants to can write a book about nutrition. What the state of North Carolina has said is that you can write a book about nutrition, but if you want to give one-on-one advice to someone, that's categorically forbidden."

Sherman points out that licensing rules keep getting more intrusive: "Fifty years ago, only 5 percent of the American population needed a license from government to work in their chosen occupation. Now that number is 30 percent."

Often licensing is imposed because established businesses want to protect their incomes.

"The story that we see again and again is that the industry itself is the one who's calling for regulation," Sherman said. "It's not that the public is afraid that people like Steve are giving dietary advice. It's dietitians (who) don't want Steve competing with them."

Sherman says North Carolina is about average in terms of unnecessary regulations. It takes $120 in fees and 250 days of classes — a total of two years — to be able to cut hair legally. It takes three years to become a landscape contractor. Such rules are a reason unemployment stays high.

And there's no proof that the rules make us safer. "A dozen states don't have any licensure requirements for nutritionists," said Sherman. "Are people in those states more in danger than people in North Carolina?"

I supported occupational licensing when I was a young consumer reporter. But now I've wised up. Now I see that it doesn't protect consumers. Competition and reputation are better protection. When you move to a new community, do you choose new dentists or mechanics by checking their licenses? No. You ask neighbors or colleagues for recommendations, or check Consumer Reports and Angie's List. You check because you know that even with licensing laws, there is quackery.

Licensing creates a false sense of security, raises costs, stifles innovation, takes away consumer choice and interferes with the right to earn a living.

And now I see another reason to object to it. It collides with freedom of speech.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="" <>></a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




2 Comments | Post Comment
It's hard to get over the idea of licensing as 'inherently good', but it is true. Licensing starts off as a government protection rack for campaign contributors and special interest groups and then takes on a life of its own.

In my field (information technology) we have no licensing requirements. We have a wide and competitive work force, from relatively inexpensive entry-level technicians to full-on gurus. So how does a customer (or employer) know who to hire? We have voluntary certifications - certification sponsored by industry-leading corporations - and advanced degrees that guarantee a certain level of competence (either which are readily verifiable).

Given only the two choices, which would you trust: a government license or a certification from the Mayo Clinic? And if you are thinking, "the government license requires a degree and a certification from Mayo", 1) you are making an assumption that may not be true, and 2) what additional benefit is the government providing then?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Svaz
Wed Oct 17, 2012 10:09 AM
While I usually agree with Stossel, I have to take issue with some of his programs about college censorship. When he brings on people from FIRE or sometimes the Institute for Justice, they imply that if a college is a public school it does not have the authority to prevent protests or rallies anywhere on campus. When the college creates a "free speech zone" they cry that that is not enough. Stossel here even complains about political correctness.

While I agree that colleges should do a lot more to ensure that free speech is welcome on a campus, that does not mean that all campus space should be made available for protests or free speech. Just because property is owned by the public does not mean that it is a free speech area. All public land should have a purpose. If something interrupts that purpose then that can be limited. I cannot simply block traffic and scream about an issue I feel it is important. That is not because what I am saying must be censored but because the road is for cars and I don't have the right to block them. A classroom is for teaching, not for having a rally. While open discussion should be encouraged in a classroom, teaching takes priority if the discussion gets out of hand.

School hallways are for walking from one place to another, courtyards have a similar purpose, gyms are for athletics, cafeterias are for eating, laboratories are for research and so forth. Freedom of speech does not mean the government is under obligation to provide you space to speak your mind and it certainly doesn't mean that if land is owned by the public that anyone should have access to that space and be able to use it for free speech purposes. Military bases have restricted access, judge's offices have restricted access, public hospitals have restricted access.

The point is that free speech just means government cannot jail you for the content of what you have to say. It does not mean people are entitled to a speech forum. If a school wants to have a policy about only publishing documents with politically correct speech that is their business. The more legitimate complaint is about schools who censor what their students are allowed to say while on campus. Yes, students should not interrupt professors while they are lecturing but students should not be told what they can say in private conversations or on the internet. Stossel's example of not soliciting sex is a good example. Also, favorable treatment of certain groups to have protest permits is certainly a free speech issue.

But just the idea that a campus is a complete free speech zone is nonsense. Not because some speech should be silenced but because the school's facilities and grounds do actually have a purpose.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Zack
Mon Oct 22, 2012 10:02 AM
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