Is It Wrong to Cut a Homeless Man’s Hair Without a License?

Last week the Arizona Republic ran a hit piece on a man who gives homeless people free haircuts. Juan Carlos Montes de Oca was once homeless himself, and he found many takers when he started offering the cuts a few years ago. Some of his “clients” hadn’t had a real haircut in years.

Mr. Montes de Oca was studying cosmetology but hadn’t yet received a state-issued license. So the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology opened an investigation. Its executive director pronounced Mr. Montes de Oca’s charity work a “real risk”—never mind that parents routinely cut their children’s hair. Then Gov. Doug Ducey stepped in, ordering the board to end its investigation and waive any penalties against Mr. Montes de Oca. The governor has since ordered a review of state-licensing board requirements to make sure they serve the public interest.

On Wednesday, more than a year after Mr. Ducey’s intervention, the Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, published the results of its investigation of Mr. Montes de Oca. The paper reported that the board had received an anonymous complaint accusing Mr. Montes de Oca of offering to accept drugs in exchange for haircuts. “Word of the drug claim was sent to Ducey’s office just before the board was scheduled to drop the issue,” the Republic reported. Mr. Montes de Oca said the allegation was false and “ridiculous.”

The article also mentioned Mr. Montes de Oca’s rough upbringing and his 2010 arrest, conviction and imprisonment for domestic violence. Mr. Ducey called the article a “smear campaign” and tweeted: “I’ve said I believe in second chances. And guess what? I ACTUALLY do.”

Mr. Montes de Oca’s story isn’t unique. Licensing laws often act as a barrier to poor people attempting to make a living and better their lives. Isis Brantley of Texas had a similar run-in with the hair police when she was arrested by undercover officers in 1997 for lacking a cosmetology license. Ms. Brantley practiced African-style hair braiding, which requires no cutting or dyeing of hair.

Yet Texas insisted she obtain a cosmetology license, which would have required 750 hours of irrelevant barber training. Even after retaining the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, to challenge the requirement, it took Ms. Brantley nearly two decades before she was fully vindicated and Texas reformed its laws in 2015.

Read more of this The Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shoshana Weissmann and C. Jarrett Dieterle by clicking here.