Free Minds & Free Markets

Licensing Board Admits It Can't Silence Red Light Camera Critic

The Oregon engineering board fined Mats Järlström for exercising his First Amendment rights. Now, finally, it admits it's not allowed to do that.

Image courtesy Institute for JusticeImage courtesy Institute for JusticeMore than three years after it targeted Mats Järlström for, essentially, doing math without a license, the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying has admitted they were wrong to do so.

As Reason has previously reported, Järlström landed in the board's crosshairs in 2014, after his wife received a traffic ticket in Beaverton, Oregon. A trained electronics engineer, Järlström had used his knowledge to critique the timing of the red light camera that snagged his wife's car.

Looking for feedback, Järlström sent a letter to the board in 2014 asking for the opportunity to present his research on how too-short yellow lights were making money for the state by putting the public's safety at risk. "I would like to present these fact for your review and comment," he wrote.

Instead of inviting him to present his ideas, the board threatened him. Citing state laws that make it illegal to practice engineering without a license, the board told Järlström that even calling himself an "electronics engineer" and using the phrase "I am an engineer" in his letter were enough to "create violations." They also slapped him with a $500 fine.

This week, the state of Oregon conceded that the board had overstepped its authority. "We have admitted to violating Mr. Järlström's rights," Senior Assistant Attorney General Christina L. Beatty-Walters said in court Monday.

In court documents, the state admitted that the board's attempt to silence Järlström "was not narrowly tailored to any compelling state interests." The board has refunded the $500 fine, and it has been enjoined against targeting Järlström again "for his speech about traffic lights and his description of himself as an engineer except in the context of professional or commercial speech."

But the fight might continue. Järlström's lawsuit did not seek any monetary damages, but it asked the state court to issue an order telling the state state board to stop violating Oregonians' free speech rights. The decision handed down this week applies only to Järlström.

That's not enough, says Samuel Gedge, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the libertarian law firm that represented Järlström in court. "The existence of these laws and the way they've been applied time and time again has violated free speech rights," Gedge told The Oregonian.

Indeed, as crazy as Järlström's story is, it's not the first time the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying has been overly aggressive about enforcing its rules about who is and who is not an engineer.

In 2014, the state board investigated Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman for publishing a campaign pamphlet that mentioned Saltzman's background as an "environmental engineer." Saltzman 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. But he isn't a licensed engineer in the state of Oregon.

According to Järlström's lawsuit, the board spent more than a year investigating Saltzman's background before voting to issue an official "warning" against using the word engineer incorrectly.

In another case, the state board investigated a Republican 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, he wasn't trying to lie about his lack of an Oregon-issued license; he was making a freaking campaign ad.

In 2010, the state board issued a $1,000 fine for illegally practicing engineering to a local activist who told the La Pine, Oregon, city council that a proposed new power plant would be too loud for nearby residents.

The board once investigated Portland Monthly magazine 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 included that description in the headline.

In court, Judge Stacie F. Beckerman pressed the board to explain its history of aggressive enforcement actions and to clarify what it considered to be the scope of professional and commercial speech.

"If the board got it wrong in this case, why should the court defer to the board going forward?" Judge Beckerman asked. An additional ruling that could limit the board's actions in future cases is expected sometime in the next few weeks, The Oregonian reports.

The board has admitted defeat in Järlström's case, but it is trying to preserve its ability to go after other people who, like Järlström, want to do nothing more than talk about mathematics and engineering in a public forum. The First Amendment should apply to those people as well, and not just to those who have the time and ability to sue the state.

Järlström's attorneys say the board needs to do more than simply refund Järlström's fine and admit they made one mistake. "Past history," says Gedge, "suggests the board can't be trusted on how the laws should be applied constitutionally."

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  • SQRLSY One||

    So if you send me a written report (at work or otherwise), for review, before some big-deal submission... And I offer to "doctor it up a bit" for you...

    Am I going to be up on charges of "practicing medicine without a license"?

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    And don't even think about nursing a beer at the bar.

  • ||

    Or plumbing a bar patron for her name.

  • Griffin3||


  • Tom Bombadil||

    Or accounting for your whereabouts.

  • Trollificus||

    Fuck. Is NASA going to come after me for "spacing out". Coz we might have a problem...

  • SQRLSY One||

    Don't tell ANYONE, but...

    Actually I am nursing a HUUUUGE grudge against Government Almighty for being a bunch of fascist busy-bodies!

  • Hank Stamper||

    Yes and fraud for doctoring up a report which can only mean fraud, the only interpretation possible by the state.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    And fine anyone who has a teachable moment.

  • ||

    So if you send me a written report (at work or otherwise), for review, before some big-deal submission... And I offer to "doctor it up a bit" for you...

    Am I going to be up on charges of "practicing medicine without a license"?

    Are you Jewish?

  • Tom Bombadil||

    You won't believe the trouble I once got into when I tried to Jew someone down on their price. Talk about cultural appropriation.

  • Sevo||

    Did you welsh on paying it anyhow?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Who, yes indeed!

    Can you IMAGINE how much trouble you could get into, if you claimed to have "Afro-engineered" or "Anglo-engineered" something or other, if you were neither a licensed engineer, nor of the correct ethnic group?

  • SQRLSY One||

    I used to be a Kosher Jew... Had split hooves and chewed the cud, and all...

    But then I quit chewing my cud, and they kicked me out of my Synagogue!

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    And the electricians may have something to say about anyone that is wired to succeed.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    And if you doctor up that report you had better not also massage the data.

  • Rich Muny||

    Julius Erving better be careful when in Oregon, lest anyone think "Dr. J" has a license to practice medicine in the all-powerful state of Oregon.

  • macsnafu||

    If you "jury-rig" a solution for a mechanical problem, will that put you in contempt of court?

  • Rhywun||

    IJ must be sick of winning.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    I really hope that by 10 or 20 years from now their winning percentage will be so high that merely a threatening letter from them will straighten out the unenlightened.

  • Sevo||

    I got notification a couple of weeks ago where that was exactly what happened.

  • Hugh Akston||

    "If the board got it wrong in this case, why should the court defer to the board going forward?" Judge Beckerman asked.

    I think a better question might be if the board has so little real work to do that they spend their time hammering people like Järlström, Saltzman, Alley, and the Oregon Weekly, why does it need to exist in the first place?

  • Don't look at me.||

    Disband the board.

  • Longtobefree||

    What ever will they do about all those guys who drive trains for a living??
    How about that?

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    I'm leaving work right now to burn my son's engineer cap. I'll have to make sure he doesn't do any Whoo Whoo's as well.

  • gaoxiaen||

    They become conductors. In the electric chair.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    We're never going to advance progressivism in this country until we start reforming our laws to make people not just do the right things, but think the right things. Because, really, what's the difference between "thinking" and "doing"? Thinking is acting, too.

    And part of that process requires control of what people say. We can't have snake oil salesmen undermindjng democracy.

    Why do you hate progress?

  • BYODB||

    Heh, that accidental moment when the underlying religious values show through in Progressivism even while they supposedly abandoned religion entirely. Whoops!

  • Trollificus||

    Considering that the "speech does actual harm, it is the same as violence" contention has become almost a default position in the suppression of unpopular opinions on college campuses (and by "unpopular" I mean anything right of Chomsky), I'd say that's an admitted goal of progressives.

  • Devastator||

    Your troll account is starting to get annoying. One's very existence shouldn't be simply to troll and be snarky. It's funny the first 3 times but after that it's a waste of bandwidth and just becomes sad.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Hey immigrant, if you don't like our laws why don't you just get out!

  • Juice||

    Doesn't it violate the principles of common law to say a ruling like this only applies to one man?

  • gaoxiaen||

    No, or civil forfeiture would be kaput.

  • joebanana||

    Sure does, it's called precedent.

  • IceTrey||

    But did they fix the lights?

  • Tionico||

    of COURSE not. That would lead to a serious drop in robbing you, er, I mean, revenue. Can't be having that, now, Old Boy.....

  • Bob2||

    The lights were already 'fixed'

  • tommhan||

    Government, what a joy.

  • joebanana||

    Government.....what a joke.

  • JudoPete||

    I've heard the best way to beat these red light cameras is to request a court date and make a constitutional demand to confront and cross examine your accuser. I'd like to see a process server subpoena a camera on a pole.

  • No Yards Penalty||

    Remember, this is the state that won't allow motorists to pump their own gas.

  • Trollificus||

    I actually had one of these gas pumpers, on seeing my out-of-state plates, LECTURE ME about what a good idea it was to have state-mandated gas-pumpers. There was an exchange of words in which hilarity did NOT ensue. God! I was mad. Called in a complaint, dunno if it had consequences for him. Didn't care. What a fuckwit. (this was in Newport, down the coast from Idiotville)

  • scsloan58||

    Driving through Oregon (which I will never do again if there is a God), I had one threaten to have me arrested after waiting several minutes for someone to show up and finally pumping my own. This was after I'd been chewed out at a previous gas stop and informed of the law. Every single person I asked told me I couldn't pump my own gas because "safety", they were all dead serious, and none could tell me how I survived into my 50s having pumped my own gas for decades.

    I guess that's what you get when you create a (stupid) jobs program for idiots.

  • joebanana||

    So apparently the "state engineers" are frauds, since they can't even time a traffic light properly. Good to know.

  • Devastator||

    Literally gigabytes of data on it and they were probably out there with a stop watch timing it so that people would be tempted to run the light and fill up state coffers. They also know that traffic cameras don't prevent accidents.

  • Devastator||

    Communities that actually kept track of the cameras and reported honestly said that the cameras didn't cut down on accidents at all. They're just a tax on dumb asses and lazy drivers. They should at least be honest that it's an income source and does nothing for public safety.

  • Ragoftag||

    Its Oregon, people! You have no rights save those you are specifically issued and only for that period of time.

  • Bob2||

    My brother-in-law was a Customer Engineer for IBM. If I had known, I would have ratted him out in a minute. He had business cards and everything. Probably felony grade.

  • dew||

    Eh, most states wouldn't care. In the 60s non-licensed engineers in computers, auto, aerospace, consumer electronics, and similar fields became a big majority of practicing engineers, and most states either changed the laws to only go after people who inaccurately called themselves licensed engineers or "Professional Engineers", or just informally stopped enforcing a strict reading of the laws/regulations.

    Oregon is a sad, petty outlier here. I'm a bit surprised that big Portland employers like IBM, Intel, Oracle and Google haven't pushed to change things - I'll guess there are thousands of computer/software engineers in metro Portland in those companies who are not very happy about this.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    So, OR is not the end-all, be-all, it thinks it is after all.


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