By Rob Frommer
In December 2009, the Institute for Justice joined forces with three Virginia yoga instructors in an effort to protect both their freedom of speech and their right to earn an honest living. Through litigation and advocacy in the court of public opinion, IJ and our clients prevailed in March 2010 when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a law removing the state’s unconstitutional burdens on our clients’ yoga businesses.
Julia Kalish, Suzanne Leitner-Wise and Bev Brown are yoga devotees who teach courses to those who want to someday become instructors themselves. Virginia law, however, required anyone who offered “vocational” training—e.g., any training that teaches a useful skill—to first get a government-issued license. The Virginia State Council of Higher Education interpreted the law to apply to our clients’ programs and demanded that they either register or shut down.
Registration was not as easy as merely filling out a simple form. New applicants had to pay $2,500 to apply and pay between $500 and $2,500 in annual fees. Applying also meant spending dozens of hours filling out financial records and other administrative documents. And teachers had to get Virginia bureaucrats to say that their curriculum was of sufficient “quality,” even though Virginia bureaucrats likely know nothing about yoga. These requirements were backed up by substantial civil and criminal penalties. If our clients had the audacity to commit any unauthorized teaching, Virginia could have levied thousands of dollars in fines and put them in jail for up to one year.
These obstacles would be daunting to anyone. But yoga-instructor programs rarely teach more than a few students each year; imposing these regulations on our clients would have forced them out of business. In fact, numerous schools in Virginia and other states have closed rather than face these headaches.
In addition to destroying our clients’ businesses, these regulations would have trampled on their free speech rights. The First Amendment protects the right to speak and to listen to speakers of our choice. Virginia would never make a writer ask for permission before he wrote a yoga book. Nor would it force a producer to get its approval before making a yoga DVD. Likewise, Virginia had no right to demand that our clients ask for permission before speaking with their students.
IJ’s simple and powerful messaging brought clarity and public pressure at a critical time. Soon after we filed suit, legislators from the Virginia General Assembly introduced a bill to exempt yoga instructor programs from the law’s requirements, a bill that is now law and which narrows Virginia’s vocational school law to protect our clients’ rights to speak freely.
All of our clients are now planning their next courses, but the Institute’s campaign for economic liberty continues. Freedom of speech should be the rule, not the exception, and too many Virginia schools still must seek the government’s permission before speaking. IJ will continue its fight to ensure that everyone in Virginia and beyond is free to speak and to create their own success free from unnecessary government interference.
Rob Frommer is an IJ staff attorney.