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Hair Braiders Sue Over Missouri's Licensing Requirement

Updated with comment from plaintiffs, copy of legal complaint. Updated at 1:35 p.m. to correct spelling of Tameka Stigers' last name. Updated at 2:25 p.m. to correct spelling of Ndioba Niang's first name.

A libertarian advocacy group has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Missouri law that requires African-style hair braiders to get a cosmetology license or face fines and jail time.

The Virginia-based Institute for Justice filed suit on behalf of Ndioba Niang and Tameka Stigers, two St. Louis women who braid hair without a license. They also challenged similar laws in Arkansas and Washington state as part of what the Institute is calling its "National Hair Braiding Initiative." 

The group, which received its initial funding from the Koch brothers, launched in 1991 with a suit successfully challenging a similar regulation in Washington, D.C. 

"Something as safe and common as braiding hair should not be regulated, particularly when those regulations involve at least 1,500 hours of irrelevant training that could cost tens of thousands of dollars," said Greg Reed, one of two attorneys on the Missouri case.

Hair braiding lawsuit

Niang, who has operated her salon in Florissant for 13 years, says she tried for two years to complete a 3,000-hour apprenticeship program that would have allowed her to get the license without attending classes.

"But I didn't finish it because that's not what I wanted to do and that's not what I need," she said. "What they were teaching was how to apply a relaxer, how to cut hair, how to flat-iron hair. What we need to have is a comb, our hands, and our knowledge of braiding hair."

Niang says she employs beauticians with a state license who wash and prepare the hair for braiding.

Stigers' new salon, Locs of Glory in St. Louis, also offers waxing and and haircuts -services that are performed by individuals with the required training. Stigers says like Niang, she only does braiding. 

She says she wouldn't mind having to demonstrate that she understands basic sanitary practices.

"But we don't think it's necessary," Stigers said. "If there's a place that's not sanitary, you're not going to go there. So you're going to chose to go to a reputable place, and those hair braiders are going to want to be sanitary, they're going to want to have a clean workplace, because then they'll have more clients."

You need to keep your work station clean and wash your hands between customers, said Dan Alban, another attorney working the case.

"Once you know those two things, you know 90 percent, if not more of what you need to know to safely braid African hair."

The laws on the books

TheMissouri statutesthat govern hairdressing do not specifically mention African-style hair braiding. But the Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners, the regulatory body, has claimed the authority to regulate the practice under the definition of hairdressing, which reads: 

 "Class CH - hairdresser" includes arranging, dressing, curling, singeing, waving, permanent waving, cleansing, cutting, bleaching, tinting, coloring or similar work upon the hair of any person by any means; or removing superfluous hair from the body of any person by means other than electricity, or any other means of arching or tinting eyebrows or tinting eyelashes."

(Emphasis added)

Stigers and Niang, Reed said, are faced every day with the threat of fines or jail time. Operating a hair salon without a license is a Class C misdemeanor in Missouri.  Individuals who do the hair braiding without a license, even in a licensed salon, could be charged with an infraction.

Neither woman has faced prosecution, though know of friends who have. The Institute for Justice says it is aware of at least three braiders who have been targeted by the board  in the last several months. The Board did not immediately know how many braiders have faced either criminal or administrative sanctions.

Last year, the General Assembly approved a measure that loosened the restrictions on hair braiders who work at a public amusement venue. A broader piece of legislation that would have exempted all African hair braiding from regulation never received a committee hearing.  

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.