Giving someone weight loss advice, ideas for healthy recipes, and grocery list recommendations can land you in jail for six months with fines totaling $1,000, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.
Donna Harris learned that first hand when the Mississippi State Department of Health threatened to throw her in jail for offering weight-loss tips to happy customers. But now, working in partnership with the Mississippi Justice Institute (“MJI”), a non-profit constitutional litigation center and the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, Donna is fighting back against the Department’s unconstitutional ban on speech about weight loss.
“Conversations about the best ways to lose weight are as old as modern civilization itself,” said MJI director Aaron Rice. “The government does not have the power to stop people from speaking about this common, everyday topic. If anything, the government should be encouraging these conversations, especially when our state is struggling with such high rates of obesity.”
Donna has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and is a certified personal trainer. Her life passion is sharing information about nutrition and physical fitness. After leaving the workforce to raise her daughter at home, Donna was looking for a new career that would allow her to balance her work and her life as a busy mom.
As a local fitness instructor, she had already attracted a loyal following. Her clients knew Donna was passionate and knowledgeable about nutrition and physical fitness, so many began turning to her for weight-loss advice. Some even suggested she start private classes, offering to pay for her services. So, Donna decided to make the plunge. She would become an entrepreneur.
She began offering an eight-week weight loss program at the beginning of 2020 and had 70 participants signed up immediately.
“When I learned I would have to cancel my weight-loss class, I was devastated,” said Harris. “People were counting on me and they were so excited about learning how to lose weight in a healthy way, and they were so disappointed when I told them I was not going to be able to go through with the program. I felt like my dreams had been crushed.”
Donna’s website included disclaimers that she wasn’t a registered dietician, and that she would only be providing weight loss strategies and would not be offering information to treat specific medical conditions. And Mississippi law specifically exempts people offering “general nutrition information as to the use of foods, food materials, or dietary supplements” from the licensure requirements.
The department claimed that Donna and others are only allowed to provide government-approved guidelines, such as the Food Pyramid and myplate.gov, not provide the advice she was offering.
To satisfy the state, and avoid jail time and fines, Donna would have to complete 1,200 hours of training that she doesn’t need or have the time to complete as a busy mom.
”In Mississippi, we should be encouraging people like Donna to follow their dreams, start businesses, create jobs, and teach people how to eat healthier,” said Rice. “We shouldn’t be putting unconstitutional red tape in their way.”
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Mississippi.