All Mats Jarlstrom wanted to do was explain why Oregon’s yellow lights weren’t long enough.
After his wife got a ticket from a red-light camera in 2013, Jarlstrom looked at the formula the state uses for calculating yellow light lengths and decided it was incomplete. In his spare time, he came up with a new formula and sent his idea to the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, asking for their thoughts on his theory.
According to Institute for Justice, instead of giving constructive feedback the Board informed him his email broke the state’s “engineering laws” and demanded he stop any work on his project. In the email, Jarlstrom had described himself as an engineer. To call yourself an engineer, they said, you had to become licensed by the state.
Jarlstrom, a Swedish immigrant who holds a degree in electrical engineering, served as an airplane camera mechanic in the Swedish Airforce, and worked for Luxor Electronics, was undaunted. For the next two years, he continued discussing his yellow light formula with anyone he thought might be interested.
That’s when the Board opened an investigation into Jarlstrom. In addition to using the term “engineer” without a license, they claimed he “may have engaged in unlicensed engineering work in Oregon.” After a two-year investigation, the board slapped him with a $500 fine. If he continued talking about yellow lights, they warned, he could face thousands of dollars in additional fines and up to a year in jail.
Is Everything Engineering?
According to Oregon law, engineering work is defined as “any…creative work requiring engineering education, training, and experience.” Under this broad definition, everything Jarlstrom had done, from developing a new formula for the traffic-light system to talking with local members of the media, was illegal. Even disagreeing with the Board that the law applied to him was illegal.
This isn’t the first time the Board has lashed out at private citizens just for doing math. In the past, they fined a professional engineer $1,000 for criticizing the results of a noise study for a power plant. The board even found in another case that simply walking by a construction site and making “calculations and conclusions” on whether the site was safe was illegal unless the person held a license.
The Board has also harassed anyone using the word “engineer” without a license. They include a retiree who had worked as a mechanical engineer for four decades, political candidates with engineering degrees and careers in the field, and a woman who had designed a bridge built in Portland.
Just Get Licensed…or Not.
Perhaps Jarlstrom should have become a licensed engineer first before raising questions about yellow lights. After all, to obtain a license he simply had to pass a six-hour exam, pass an eight-hour exam, submit an application that includes five references (including three registered engineers), pay almost a thousand dollars in application fees, and work at least four years under a registered professional engineer. Then he could have talked about yellow lights as much as he pleased.
A First Amendment Issue
Thankfully, Jarlstrom is fighting back. Earlier this year, he partnered with Institute for Justice and filed suit in federal court, claiming Oregon’s engineering laws violate the First Amendment rights of himself and everyone living in Oregon.
So far, it’s not looking good for the State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. The American Civil Liberties Union joined the case last month. And the presiding judge recently declared Jalstrom is free to talk about traffic lights and describe himself as an engineer while the case is being decided.
Jarlstrom is right. The State of Oregon doesn’t own the word “engineer,” and under the First Amendment can’t use an absurdly broad law to give unaccountable bureaucrats the power to decide who can and can’t share ideas. Click here to tell Congress that licensing should exist to ensure the homes we live in or roads we drive on are safe, not stop people from voicing an opinion – even if that opinion includes math.
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