Thanks to a grassroots group of interior designers in Washington state, economic liberty won a mighty victory in February. With the assistance of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA), these dogged designers defeated a menacing attempt to cartelize the Evergreen State’s interior design industry.
A perhaps unlikely front in the battle for economic liberty, the interior design industry has been under siege by a powerful group of industry insiders and their nationwide campaign to “professionalize” (read: restrict entry into) the industry. Simply put, these special interests want to control competition by regulating their competition out of business. They have succeeded in a number of states, securing legislation in two forms: “title acts,” which restrict who may use titles such as “interior designer”; and “practice acts,” which prohibit anyone from practicing interior design without first obtaining a completely unnecessary government-issued license.
When IJ learned of this cartelization effort, we committed ourselves to defending the economic liberty of the tens of thousands of designers who simply want the freedom to earn an honest living in the field they love. To that end, IJ launched a massive counteroffensive, taking advantage of our many capabilities. We used litigation to successfully challenge New Mexico’s title act, and we continue to litigate a challenge to a similar law in Texas. We used our strategic research assets to publish “Designing Cartels: How Industry Insiders Cut Out Competition,” a devastating exposé of the self-serving motivations behind the national regulation effort. We placed op-eds that took on the pro-regulatory push. And we used our experience in outreach and grassroots activism to host a 2007 conference to train designers from across the country to fight the cartelization effort in their own states.
The victory in Washington is yet another success in this counteroffensive. One of the attendees at IJ’s 2007 activist conference was Leslie Jensen, a kitchen and bath designer from Tacoma. Shortly after Leslie returned from the conference, she learned that pro-regulation interests would be pushing an interior design bill in the Washington Legislature’s 2008 session. Using the skills she learned at the conference, Leslie and fellow designer Shiela Off launched a grassroots movement to defeat the bill.
Leslie and Shiela formed Washington Professionals Protecting Design Freedom (WA-PPDF), a group of designers committed to preserving economic liberty. Between October 2007 and January 2008, when the legislative session commenced, WA-PPDF hosted nine townhall-style meetings to discuss the legislation and the consequences it would have for designers, related industries that rely on the business designers generate, and consumers. I attended these meetings to discuss IJ’s efforts in fighting design regulation and the constitutional problems that such regulation presents.
Once the legislative session began and the bill—a full-blown practice act—was introduced, things kicked into high gear. IJ’s media team helped secure coverage of the bill, which was roundly criticized on the talk radio airwaves. I testified against the bill before the Senate Labor, Commerce, Research and Development Committee as did designers Marie Blackburn and Vonda Marsland, and WA-PPDF even organized a “lobby day” at the legislature, providing designers from around the state the opportunity to meet with their respective senators and representatives to voice their concerns about the bill.
The overwhelming opposition was more than the pro-regulation faction—or the Legislature—anticipated. In an Associated Press article published the day after the bill’s Senate committee hearing, the committee chair announced, “[T]here’s too much controversy with this bill for us to adequately deal with it all in a short session.” Just a few days later, the bill died in committee.
As a result of WA-PPDF’s and IJ’s coordinated efforts, interior designers remain free to practice their profession in the Evergreen State. But the battle to preserve the constitutional rights of designers goes on. (In early March, for example, we helped defeat a bill in Minnesota that would have expanded the states’s titling act into a full-blown practice act, limiting the economic liberty of hundreds in the state.) IJ will continue this fight in state legislatures and courtrooms across the country so that designers, and all of us, remain free to work in the fields we love.
Michael Bindas is an Institute for Justice Washington Chapter staff attorney.