Occupational Licensing

Judge Confirms: Oregon Engineer Has a First Amendment Right to Call Himself an Engineer

Even if the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying disagrees.


Institute for Justice

A federal judge has ruled that the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying violated the First Amendment when it tried to fine Mats Järlström—an Oregonian with a degree in engineering and years of experience in the field—for describing himself as "an engineer."

In a ruling issued Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman issued a permanent injunction against the board's enforcement of the relevant rules, which had included trying to fine Järlström $500 for describing himself as an engineer in a non-professional context.

Järlström got on the board's bad side because he tried to challenge a traffic ticket given to his wife by a red light camera in Beaverton, Oregon, in 2013. He challenged the ticket by questioning the timing of the yellow lights at intersections where the cameras had been installed, using knowledge from his degree in electrical engineering and his experience working as an airplane camera mechanic in the Swedish Air Force. His research landed him in the media spotlight—in 2014, he presented his evidence on an episode of 60 Minutes—and earned him an invitation to present his findings at an annual meeting of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, a trade group.

It also got him some unwanted attention from the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, which said Järlström's research into red light cameras and their effectiveness amounts to practicing engineering without a license. The board told Järlström that even calling himself an "electronics engineer" and the use of the phrase "I am an engineer" in his letter were enough to "create violations."

Those regulations and enforcement actions, Beckerman ruled, are unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment. The judge directed the board to remove the definition of "engineer" from its rules and to limit its enforcement to individuals who falsely claim to be a "professional engineer."

The ruling means that "thousands of Oregon engineers are now free to describe themselves—truthfully—as 'engineers,' without fear of government punishment," says Sam Gedge, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that represented Järlström in the lawsuit against the board.

"The regulation of the title 'enginneer' is more burdensome than necessary to protect the public from the unlicensed practice of engineering," wrote Beckerman. "The record demonstrates that the threat to free expression is not merely hypothetical."

Indeed, the record is full of overzealous enforcement on the part of the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. The board investigated a Portland city commissioner in 2014 for publishing a campaign pamphlet that mentioned his background as an "environmental engineer"—even though the commissioner had a bachelor's degree in environmental and civil engineering from Cornell University, had a master's degree from MIT's School of Civil Engineering, and was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The board spent more than a year investigating the commissioner's background before voting to issue an official "warning" against using the word engineer incorrectly.

In another case, the state board investigated a gubernatorial candidate for using the phrase "I'm an engineer and a problem-solver" in a campaign ad. The candidate in question, Allen Alley, had a degree in engineering from Purdue University and worked as an engineer for Boeing (and, of course, wasn't trying to lie about his lack of an Oregon-issued license; he was making a freaking campaign ad).

It doesn't stop there. In 2010, the state board fined a local activist $1,000 for illegally practicing engineering. More specifically, the activist had told the La Pine, Oregon, city council that a proposed power plant would be too loud for nearby residents.

The board once investigated Portland Monthly for running a story that described a young immigrant woman as "an engineer behind Portland's newest bridge." The woman in the story did not describe herself as an engineer, but the magazine's editors had included that description in their headline.

"For years, Oregon's engineering board has operated as if the First Amendment didn't apply to it," Gedge tells Reason. "As the court's ruling confirms, that could not be more wrong."