Civil Liberties

Beauty Is in the Eye of the State Licensing Board

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In the April issue of Reason, I review the new edition of Jim Hogshire's Opium for the Masses, a book that explains how poppy pods commonly available from florists and craft stores become contraband under federal law once the person possessing them learns they can be used to make a psychoactive tea. Louisiana has an even crazier law that makes all flowers illegal once they are artfully arranged and offered for sale—unless the arranger holds a state license. Today several unlicensed florists represented by the Institute for Justice conspicuously broke that law in New Orleans  to dramatize their constitutional challenge to the state's unique-in-the-nation licensing scheme. "Floral arrangements made by unlicensed florists will be sold on the steps of the U.S. District Courthouse," I.J. announced in a press release, "with the perpetrators of this so-called crime available for questioning."

This is the second time I.J. has sued to overturn Lousiana's florist licensing law. The first lawsuit, which I covered back in 2004, had to be abandoned because the plaintiffs either died or moved out of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. I.J. claims the licensing requirement violates rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment: due process, equal protection, and "privileges or immunities," which include the freedom to earn a living. It argues that the regulations fail the "rational basis" test because they do not serve a legitimate public purpose: No health or safety issues are implicated by unauthorized floral arrangements, and consumers can judge for themselves whether they like the results. "We're confident because there is no legitimate reason for the government to dictate who can and who cannot arrange flowers," says I.J. lawyer Tim Keller.

The new lawsuit, which was filed this week, is also backed up by a recent I.J. study in which "Louisiana-licensed florists as well as unlicensed florists from across the border in Texas were asked to judge a random line-up of floral arrangements—25 purchased from shops in regulated Louisiana and 25 purchased from unregulated Texas." Guess what? "Not even the licensed Louisiana florists could find any difference in the quality of the arrangements." Yet Thomas Spedale, a licensed florist in Lafayette who likes the idea of having the state artificially restrict his competition, says Louisiana's legislators were farsighted to perceive a threat to the public from improperly arranged flowers and nip it in the bud:

We are the only state in the union who has this law, and I think we lead the nation. I think Louisiana has this right. This is protection for the consumer.