Miss. woman says she was threatened with fines, jail time for offering weight-loss program

Updated: Mar. 2, 2020 at 7:53 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A Madison woman says she was threatened with fines and jail time for offering an online weight-loss program. Now, she’s suing the state.

Donna Harris wants to help folks lose weight. She has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and is a certified personal trainer. But she isn’t a registered dietitian.

She was shut down when she recently tried to kick off an eight-week weight-loss program. Seventy people had signed up on her website.

“They were eager to learn how to lose weight in a healthy way,” explained Harris.

But the Mississippi State Department of Health told her stop what she was doing immediately or she would face a fine or jail time.

Harris says they’ve told her she can’t offer advice outside of government-approved guidelines like the Food Pyramid without having a license. She says those who planned to participate in her program were shocked.

“They all replied with, ‘Well we know you’re not a licensed dietitian," noted Harris. "We know that. You didn’t claim to be. So, we think it should be our right to decide who we want to pay for weight-loss information.”’

She says she would need 1,200 hours of training to become a registered dietitian and it would involve work that wasn’t relevant to helping already healthy individuals without medical needs.

The Mississippi Justice Institute says it’s more than disappointing, they say it’s state censorship of her free speech.

“As Americans and as Mississippians, we have a right to engage in speech about what healthy adults should buy at the grocery store whether we’re paid for that speech or not... period,” said Mississippi Justice Institute Director Aaron Rice.

So, they’ve filed a federal lawsuit challenging that.

“Donna’s situation is emblematic of a much larger problem in Mississippi," explained Rice. "We should be encouraging people like Donna to follow their dreams, to start businesses, to create jobs and to teach people how to eat healthier. We should not be putting unconstitutional red tape in their way.”

We also back up to see the details of Governor Tate Reeves’ State of the State address. He noted a desire to see red tape reduced surrounding regulations for starting businesses but did not specify any specific industry or license.

The Mississippi State Department of Health did not yet have a comment on this specific case.

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