An Oregon resident whose wife received a red-light ticket near Portland is suing state officials after they fined him $500 in connection with his proposal for a new mathematical formula for intersection traffic cameras.
"I'm an excellent engineer," Mats Järlström told the panel that issued the fine, in so doing committing an alleged infraction as he suggested accounting for cars slowing down before turning on a yellow light.
Järlström pitched his idea to "60 Minutes," a local TV station, a sheriff and a leading authority on traffic-light technology. He was invited to address the Institute of Transportation Engineers.
But the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying contends that except in limited circumstances, only state-licensed engineers can call themselves engineers or "practice" engineering. It found that Järlström, who claims a Swedish degree in electrical engineering, violated state law.
"Järlström applied special knowledge of the mathematical, physical and engineering sciences to such creative work as investigation, evaluation and design in connection with public equipment, processes and works. Järlström thereby engaged in the practice of engineering" under state law, the board ruled, ending in January an investigation that began in 2015.
Järlström paid the $500 fine out of concern that resistance would lead to a maximum $1,000 fine for each of many alleged infractions, says his attorney, Sam Gedge of the Institute for Justice. But on Tuesday Järlström filed a lawsuit, saying the First Amendment allows him to criticize the camera formula and to call himself – accurately, in his view – an engineer.
The Institute for Justice suggests in a press released that Galileo or Leonardo da Vinci might come under similar investigation if they lived in Oregon.
"I'm just using basic mathematics and physics, Newtonian laws of motion, to make calculations and talk about what I found," Jarlstrom told Motherboard.
Järlström isn't seeking damages, and he's unlikely to get back the $500, though he does request attorney fees.
"We're trying to change the law going forward so anyone in Oregon can speak freely about technical topics without fear of being investigated," Gedge says. "There's just example after example of this board violating people's constitutional rights."
Indeed, Oregon authorities have investigated others for allegedly practicing engineering without a license.
Reason magazine reports the board fined an activist $1,000 in 2010 for engineering without a license, after the activist told the City Council in La Pine, Oregon, that a proposed power plant would be too loud. In 2015, board members also decided to issue a warning to Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman for calling himself an "environmental engineer."
Saltzman, Reason reports, "has a bachelor's degree in environmental and civil engineering from Cornell University, a master's degree from MIT's School of Civil Engineering, and is a membership of the American Society of Civil Engineers."
Last year, board members also voted to open an investigation into a Republican candidate for governor who had worked as a Boeing engineer, Allen Alley, for calling himself "an engineer and a problem-solver," Reason reports.
Eric Engelson, a spokesman for the board that fined Jarlstrom, declined to comment on the case, citing the pending litigation.
Engelson says there currently are about 12,500 licensed engineers in Oregon. Gedge says that's "a pretty modest subset" of people with engineering degrees.
"We do not keep track of the industries in which our registrants work in," Engelson says, unable to delineate whether most licensees are government employees or contractors.
Matt Cash, president of the group Professional Engineers of Oregon, said he was unable to provide a statement on the case by publication time. A spokesperson for the National Society of Professional Engineers, which works with state affiliates to defend licensing laws, was unable to provide comment.
Some recent court decisions have gone against penalizing people who speak about or claim fields that fall under state licensing.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals, for example, said in 2013 that local official William Turner, a hydrologist by profession, was wrongfully found to have violated state law by investigating and then expressing concern about ditch design while repeatedly saying at a meeting he was not an engineer.
"At its worst, the [New Mexico Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Surveyors'] interpretation of [state law] results in a targeted topical elimination of Turner's right to freedom of speech: It punishes Turner for participating in public discourse about technical aspects of engineering matters related to the ongoing management of water," the appeals court ruled.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit last year also found that the First Amendment allowed former state Senate candidate Mary Serafine to call herself a "psychologist."
Serafine, who was a professor in the psychology departments at Yale University and Vassar College and a member of the American Psychological Association "for several years," complied with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists' order that she cease using the term, and then sued.
"[T]he extent to which a state can use its licensing power to restrict speech is unsettled," the federal appeals court said, as "[t]he Supreme Court has never formally endorsed the professional speech doctrine" that would allow for regulating such remarks.
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