Mats Järlström: I Am an Engineer

Oregon’s engineering board admits that it violated my First Amendment rights

3 min read
Mats Järlström at the wheel of his car.
Photo: Institute for Justice

THE INSTITUTEI was the subject of The Institute’s post, “Does Having a License Make You an Engineer?

Until two weeks ago, the simple act of calling myself an engineer could have earned me a US $1,000 fine as a repeat offender of Oregon’s unconstitutional professional-engineer licensing law.

Earlier this year, the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying said I illegally practiced engineering without a license each time I critiqued traffic-light systems. It also said that without an engineering license, I broke the law simply by describing myself using the word engineer. (The board, a semi-independent agency, funds itself through licensing and registration fees.)

All that changed on 30 May, when the board consented to a preliminary injunction I filed as part of my First Amendment lawsuit challenging the state’s regulation of the word engineer and the practice of engineering. On 14 June, the board further admitted that its “interpretation violated Mr. Järlström’s rights under the First Amendment.”

This is an important case—not just for me but for lots of concerned citizens and engineers in Oregon and nationwide.

I emigrated from Sweden 25 years ago, and I’ve lived in Oregon for decades and raised a family here. By education and background, I’m what most people would call an “engineer.” I earned the equivalent of a B.S. in electrical engineering back in Sweden, worked as an airplane-camera mechanic in the Swedish Air Force, and spent years designing audio products and loudspeakers, both in Europe and in the United States.

Like most people, though, I’m not a state-licensed professional engineer. That landed me in serious trouble. A few years ago, after my wife received a red-light ticket, I got interested in how traffic lights are timed—in particular, how the length of yellow lights affects people making right-hand turns. I came up with some ideas for how the standard formula for traffic-light timing might be improved. And I shared those ideas with different people, including local news media, my county sheriff, and even one of the scientists who developed the current yellow-light formula.

I also reached out to Oregon’s engineering board; I thought it might be interested in hearing about my theory. It wasn’t. Instead, the board launched a two-year investigation and fined me $500. The reason was two-fold. First, the board charged that it is illegal to use math or engineering principles to “critique” the logic governing traffic lights without being a state-licensed professional engineer. Put more simply, it claimed that writing about engineering topics in public view and without a license was illegal in Oregon. Second, it said it was illegal for me even to describe myself as an engineer because, again, I’m not a state-licensed professional engineer.

Amazingly, my experience is all too common.

In recent years, Oregon has investigated lots of people who either spoke out about technical topics or who described themselves truthfully using the word engineer. Last year, for example, the engineering board targeted a gubernatorial candidate who said, “I’m an engineer” in one of his campaign ads. The candidate has a degree in mechanical engineering, worked for Ford and Boeing, and has a bunch of engineering-related awards—but, you guessed it, he’s not a state-licensed professional engineer.

These kinds of laws are not just un-American; they are unconstitutional. The state doesn’t get to redefine words like engineer and then go after whomever deviates from the government’s preferred definition. On top of that, no one should need a license to speak out when they’re concerned about how the government is operating, whether the topic has to do with taxes, trade policy, or traffic lights. That’s why I’m fighting to fix the laws in Oregon.

Although the state consented to the preliminary injunction, my fight is far from over. The court order only grants me permission to talk about traffic lights during the course of my lawsuit. Now comes the hard work of fighting the state law in court. Thankfully, I’ve partnered with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm that fights for free speech nationwide. Given our early win, we’re confident that I, along with the rest of Oregon, will soon be free to talk about technical subjects without risking running afoul of the law.

I’m grateful to The Institute for covering this important issue and to its many readers—professional engineers, practicing engineers, and everyone else—who have expressed support. Like many Americans, I have ideas that I’m excited about and that I want to share. Never in the world’s history has it been easier for us to speak out, to bounce our theories off others, and to promote debate and innovation. That’s what the First Amendment is all about.

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