Flower power: Free the florists!

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Jan 09, 2004 12:00 AM

Last year Sandy Meadows, who supervises the floral department at an Albertson's supermarket in Baton Rouge, was filling in at another Albertson's store that had lost its florist when she was visited by an inspector from the Louisiana Horticulture Commission. He told her she'd have to throw out the seven arrangements she had produced that morning if she wanted to avoid a $250 citation for practicing floristry without a license.

Louisiana appears to be the only state in the nation that treats unlicensed florists making unauthorized arrangements as a public menace. If Meadows gets her way, it will no longer have that distinction.

Last month Meadows and two other women whose floral work has been praised by the public but rejected by the state filed a federal lawsuit challenging Louisiana's 65-year-old florist licensing law as an anti-competitive, unconstitutional infringement on their right to earn a living. Their case is part of a campaign by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice to restore respect for economic freedom by forcing governments to justify the barriers they erect between people and their chosen work.

Although Meadows has nearly a decade of experience arranging flowers, she has never managed to pass the state's two-part florist licensing exam, which includes a one-hour written test and a four-hour practical test. The arrangements created in the latter part of the exam are judged by licensed florists, the very people with whom the applicant intends to compete.

Applicants are supposed to demonstrate their mastery of such design principles as balance, scale, harmony, focal point, accent, repetition and unity. That sounds pretty subjective to me, but I'm not a licensed florist. Maybe the experts know how to measure such qualities reliably and precisely.

Or maybe not. The Institute for Justice reports that score sheets obtained from a florist who recently passed the exam (on her fifth try) "show the test is graded in a haphazard, seemingly arbitrary fashion." On one occasion, the five judges disagreed wildly about whether the flowers in a wedding arrangement were wired properly and whether the wire was the right size, awarding scores ranging from zero to perfect.

With this much leeway, it's not surprising that the florists manage to flunk their would-be competitors most of the time. Sandy Meadows, having failed the exam three times, has concluded that it's irrelevant to the skills necessary for making floral arrangements, which she has been doing successfully at various stores for nine years. Despite her demonstrated ability, state law requires that the stores where she works also employ a full-time licensed florist.

One of Meadows' co-plaintiffs, Shamille Peters of New Orleans, has worked in the floral department at Albertson's, handled the floral arrangements for several weddings, and taken floral design courses at Delgado Community College. She has failed the licensing exam five times.

The third plaintiff, Barbara Peacock of Shreveport, who grew up making floral arrangements with her mother, wants to open a wedding chapel. Because she couldn't afford to pay a full-time florist, she realized she'd have to pass the state licensing exam. Like Peters, she took courses at the local community college. After failing the test the first time, she took another floral design class, this one taught by a florist who has served as an exam judge. It didn't help.

The exam is widely considered a joke, even by licensed florists, many of whom say it's highly subjective and requires outmoded techniques. But even if it were a valid measure of flower arranging ability, it would not be a valid exercise of government power. There is no reason to believe that consumers are incapable of judging for themselves whether a flower arrangement looks nice.

The Institute for Justice is asking a federal judge to declare the licensing requirement a violation of 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.

Seeming to concede that point, Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom told A.P. that if the floral industry asked him to scrap the licensing system he'd support legislation to do so. Institute for Justice attorney Clark Neily notes that "asking licensed florists whether they wish to throw the industry open to all comers is like asking the fox if it wants to stop guarding the henhouse."