The Mississippi Justice Institute announced a new lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Health, in defense of their client Donna Harris.
Donna, who received a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and is a certified personal trainer was targeted by MSDH after she tried to launch a weight loss program for healthy individuals who were already participating in classes at the local gym she worked for as a trainer.
She began by offering an eight-week weight loss program at the beginning of 2020 and had 70 participants signed up immediately. Harris said her website was clear, she was not a registered dietitian and was only providing weight loss strategies for healthy individuals and not for anyone who needed specific medical treatment or conditions.
However, as soon as her website launched, she received a cease and desist letter from the Mississippi State Department of Health. Harris said she when she tried to reach out to the department to explain what she was doing, she was threatened with fines and even jail time if she continued to talk about weight loss for compensation.
“It was a cease and desist order that said I was illegally practicing as a registered dietitian and might have to pay fines of up to $1,000. I really thought they had misunderstood what I was doing,” said Harris. “These people know I am not a registered dietitian.”
MSDH told her that only registered dietitian were permitted to provide this kind of advice in the state of Mississippi and she was not allowed to do so unless she was using government-approved diets like those based on the “Food Pyramid”.
She was then forced to refund all of her clients and shut down the program.
“Everyone was writing back ‘we are so disappointed, you told us, we don’t think your’e a dietitian. It should be whoever we want to pay for information,'” said Harris.
Harris said for anyone who needs a specialized medical diet they should absolutely leave it to a registered dietitian for help. However, she thinks that anyone has the knowledge, is honest about their qualifications and wants to share it should have the right to do that.
“I think it is the customers rite to chose whether or not to pay the person,” said Harris.
The lawsuit filed by MCPP on her behalf argues that the actions of the state violate Donna’s right to free speech. The lawsuit was filed by the federal court by MJI Director Aaron Rice. They plan to prove that Donna’s right to free speech was infringed upon and that she was in fact operating within the current statues.
The Mississippi Justice Institute is a nonprofit constitutional litigation center and the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.