Free Minds & Free Markets

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 JusticeInstitute for JusticeA 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."

Photo Credit: Image courtesy Institute for Justice

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  • Ragnarredbeard||

    I'd bet money the head of that board is also the president of his neighborhood's HOA.

  • Ben of Houston||

    This is a good ruling.

    I actually got my PE primarily to avoid this guy's situation. My title is "Engineer", but if I put that on any submissions, such as a permit application, or even my e-mail signature, I risk being found guilty of fraud.

    Most of our work doesn't require a stamp (I've used mine 3 times, and I could have done without two of them). There's no reason to go through that giant test and endless grind for continuing education credits.

  • DesigNate||

    That's exactly why I'm trying to go for it. Now if only I could get the same kind of ruling for Architects.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    ""The regulation of the title 'enginneer' is more burdensome than necessary to protect the public from the unlicensed practice of engineering,""

    Most practice of engineering is unlicensed practice of engineering. I've been fortunate that, as a tooling engineer, I don't interact with the government enough to run into these licensing issues. None of my employers have ever cared about professional certification, just that I have a decades long track record of doing the work.

    The goal here isn't to protect the public, it's to cartelize the profession.

  • Jerryskids||

    I remember when the '76ers would visit Oregon and Julius Erving had to be introduced as plain ol' Mr. J. And now you know why there's no dot after the first two letters of Dr Pepper.

  • Anomalous||

    J and Pepper should have gone to medical school.

  • Quixote||

    The ruling is plainly wrong, because the state has the right to impose regulations obliging people to describe themselves as having degrees in engineering rather than as professional "engineers," just as it has the right to enact laws requiring people to explicitly declare their parodies to be "parodies" so as to prevent any form of public confusion in that regard. This is so, because calling yourself an "engineer" when you only have a degree in engineering diminishes the reputation of actual engineers working in the field. See the documentation of America's leading criminal "satire" case at:

  • DesigNate||

    That is just as fucking retarded as anti-gay marriage morons arguing that letting gays get married would "diminish the institution of marriage".

  • tommhan||


  • Incredulous||

    Total bullshit

    If somebody wants to call themselves an engineer, they can call themselves an engineer. Period. That's their basic human right. The fucking government doesn't get to decide who's an engineer or not. They can decide who's a CERTIFIED engineer. Why can't you understand that???

  • Gasman||

    The term engineer existed long before state boards got their shorts all in a wad.
    Had a sixth grade education, and were the principle operator of a train in the '40s, as my grandfather, then you were an engineer. Built the Eads bridge over the MIssissippi at St. Louis, also without a high school diploma, then you were an engineer (James Eads). When I wish to explain my background, and approach to problem solving in our medical facility, then this physician calls himself an engineer. (BS and PhD)

  • Quixote||

    Clearly all of you are wrong, because the government has the manifest right to regulate what can and can't be said, and in what form it can be said, when reputational interests are at stake. Particularly the reputational interests of distinguished members of society like academic department chairmen and practicing engineers. Furthermore, anyone who violates speech regulations that protect reputational interests does so at the risk of being appropriately jailed. No one fools any of us here at NYU with the "free speech" nonsense we keep hearing about, and this is why we are working on further regulations that can also be enacted (certainly within the confines of our institution, but we believe on the state and federal levels as well) to prevent students and others from reading objectionable "opinion" articles like this one:

  • Mickey Rat||

    Did Juilius ride his Harley in Portland?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Oregon's engineering board has engineered themselves into a corner.

    What do you want to bet, 5 years from now, they'll find a way to get back to doing the same old things again? How many times have the courts ruled against "policing for profits", reverse discrimination, and IRS abuses? Over how many decades? Yet all these things are still going on!

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "How many times have the courts ruled against "policing for profits""

    As a general principle? Never.

    " and IRS abuses?"

    The courts can only rule against specific abuses. That doesn't help any when they invent entirely new abuses.

  • DajjaI||

    I'm all for free speech, but then what the heck are we supposed to do with all our woodchippers?

  • Fk_Censorship||

    Ask an engineer!

  • Ken Shultz||

    Private alternatives to government licensing are a good thing. In Libertopia, the ASCE would still exist. It's just that they wouldn't get much benefit from government in helping them police their exclusivity. In some ways, we might even see the local engineering society's right to exclude people from their professional designation as a freedom of association issue. They shouldn't be forced to associate themselves with anyone and everyone who wants to call themselves a "Professional Engineer"--just like Reason shouldn't be forced to stand by idly while someone claims to be an editor for Reason but isn't.

    I might even start breaking down if (again in Libertopia), the local government decides that they only want certified "Professional Engineers" stamping plans for government projects. Maybe there are more ASCE! It's not necessarily the case that every small city has an engineer on staff who is professionally capable of double checking the calculations and design on every aspect of every plan, be it the geotechnical specs on a flood channel or the structural integrity of a pedestrian bridge. In those cases, cities requiring that the plans be stamped by someone with the credentials of a Professional Engineer might be legitimate.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The number of architects who imagine they can do structural engineering, for instance, is dismaying, and the responsibility of the city is to keep its citizens safe--not to make sure that the person who designed the bridge can be sued after their citizens are already dead. That's too late.

  • IceTrey||

    The responsibility of government is to defend liberty, period.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The legitimate purpose of government is to protect people's rights, and the government building stuff that kills people due to professional incompetence doesn't fall within that mandate.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The times I have dealt with working architects have given me a very poor 8mpressiin if their training. In one case, we were building a studio for my Lady, and needed a licnensed architect to sraw up the plans before we could get a building permit. We had some rough plans that had spots for electrical outlets indicated, based on where particular equipment would go. The twit-architect handed back plans with a lower number of outlets spaced evenly along the walls.

    He and I had a come to Jesus meeting. He tried to cop the 'I'm the profressional here' attitude, but I explained to him that he was a goddamned hireling, and that if he wouldn't do the job we had hired him to do I would make destroying his professional reputation my hobby.

    I hope I put the fear of God into thr little moron, but I doubt it.

  • gaoxiaen||

    I used to do a lot of wiring in houses and garages (and vehicles). I bought two books- let me get them- Time/Life Basic Wiring and Time/Life Advanced Wiring. It's not rocket science.

  • FlameCCT||

    Is Libertopia the PC form of Progressive Plantation?

  • A Lady of Reason||

    If he wants to call himself that without official certification, it's dishonest. Like someone calling themselves an MD without a medical degree or Dr. without earning a PhD...

  • Anomalous||

    As long as he is not using the adjective "professional" before the word "engineer" to identify himself, he is not being dishonest at all.

  • Zeb||

    Which is also a ridiculous restriction if you are in fact employed as an engineer. I'm a professional engineer because my job title says so even though I have no engineering degree or certification.
    Now if someone claimed to be licensed or certified when they aren't that would be a legitimate fraud claim. But no way should anyone be punished for accurately describing their job in plain English.

  • aelhues||

    I'm certain that there are many thousands of legitimate engineers by job that do not have a degree, license or certification indicating that they are in fact engineers. In my world, a degree, license or certification is not a magic potion granting otherwise inaccessible knowledge or ability.

  • Mickey Rat||

    A professional engineer license enables someone to take legal responsibility for a design, which means putting their neck on the line. It is not magic, but it does have some meaning.

  • Agammamon||

    The term shouldn't be 'professional engineer' then. It should be 'licensed' or 'certified' engineer instead.

    Tons of people do engineering for money - only those specifically licensed can take that responsibility for a design.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Right, "professional" just means you do it for a living.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    If he's got an engineering degree and years of relevant experience, he can be called an engineer.

  • Deconstructed Potato||



  • DajjaI||

    I'm an MD. Would you kindly report me?

  • 0x1000||

    "Official certification"

    Which office? From where do they derive sole authority over the use of individual words?

  • Zeb||

    But many, I'd go so far as to say probably most, people who can be accurately described as "professional engineers" have no such license or certification. Calling yourself "Doctor" implies that you hold a specific advanced degree and "MD" suggests that you are licensed to practice medicine (though I'm not sure if unlicensed people with MD degrees can call themselves "MD"). "Engineer" doesn't do that.

  • Trainer||

    Anyone can call themselves a doctor as far as I know. What they can't do is practice medicine if they aren't licensed.

  • Zeb||

    Sure, you can call yourself whatever you want. But if you call yourself Dr. and imply that you are so qualified, that's dishonest. But there is nothing dishonest about calling yourself and engineer if you are in fact an engineer.

  • BYODB||

    And, specifically, 'Doctor' has many meanings but 'Medical Doctor' has a specific meaning. Last I saw, any jackass with a Ph.D. can call themselves doctor yet have no relation to medical practices. Hell, an O.D. which is a fairly simple bar to meet can call themselves a doctor and they basically have a masters.

  • Zeb||

    Really? I thought they were pretty much on par with MDs these days.

  • BYODB||

    Nah, it's a four year secondary education after College with no real residency requirements last I saw. It's a bizarre middle ground specialty sort of like Audiology.

  • FlyerJack||

    I think he's referring to optometrists (O.D.) and you might be thinking of osteopathic physicians (D.O.).

  • Trainer||

    It's unethical to call yourself a medical doctor if you're not but unless your bilking people out of money or practicing without a license, you can call yourself a medical doctor all you want. That's where free speech comes in- you have the right to call myself a medical doctor as long as you don't break laws and put people at risk by actually trying to practice medicine. That's why anyone should be able to call themselves an engineer in a non-professional setting.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Well, if not taking official responsibility and liability for design documentation and other such engineering documentation that requires liability.

  • Agammamon||

    Anyone can call themselves Doctor. Anyone can append the initials 'MD' or 'DD' or 'PhD' or any initials they want after their names.

    Anyone can call themselves 'Pope' if they want. They can call themselves 'General' if they want - complete with wearing the uniform of one.

    The illegality comes solely for doing so *in exchange for money* without a little permission slip from the government.

  • IJustWorkHere||

    One of my professors in college (an ABET-accredited big-E Engineering school) requested the state association of professional engineers grant him a license without taking the engineering test and they refused to give him a Professional Engineering license, even though he'd practiced engineering as a researcher for 20+ years, had a PhD in engineering, and taught each and every graduate of that engineering program before they sought a license. He even had a side gig as an expert witness in courts. Point is, having the license or not is not an indication of engineering knowledge.

    Once you accept that the association of professional engineers is more of a cartel than a quality control body, it makes more sense when you learn that they grade the exam on a curve and only grant licenses to the number of new engineers that they feel the market will support (the opposite of a market-based solution). There is even a code of ethics that suggests that "engineers should not compete on price when writing proposals"!

    Once you go through the rigamarole of getting a PE license -- a degree, an 8 hour exam, 5 years of experience, another 8 hour exam -- it hardly makes sense to make that a casual qualification. That's all you'll do professionally. The system is designed for mediocrity.

    You are probably buying into this system because you didn't know better. That would be ok if you didn't comment, but by judging his integrity, I think you're out of line.

  • BYODB||

    Just ask Dr. Dre what they think of that reasoning Lady.

  • Mcgoo95||

    Calling yourself an engineer after graduating with a degree in engineering is perfectly normal and fine. To become a professional engineer, you need to first pass the EIT/FE and eventually the PE exam. Adding a PE after your title is essentially the same thing as MD. The difference is, to be a MD is the same as a the name "doctor" whereas the PE is NOT the same as "engineer". The fundamental difference is that many engineers have really no benefit to taking the PE exam unless you are civil or, in some cases, electrical. Most engineers work for corporations that don't really care about the PE, but may care about other professional qualifications. You can spend your entire career working as an engineer without becoming a "professional engineer". This is case of credentialism run amok.

  • IJustWorkHere||

    Or own/operate a licensed/bonded engineering company which offers engineering services.

  • Two Buck Chuck||

    I thought about becoming a PE, but I couldn't afford the pay cut.

  • Agammamon||


  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "The regulation of the title 'enginneer

    I too am an enginneer.

  • IJustWorkHere||


  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    What if you drive a train?

  • $park¥ The Misanthrope||

    That's a conductor and the guy who runs the orchestra now has to be a maestro.

  • Zeb||

    I thought the conductor was the guy who tells you to get on the train before it leaves.

  • BYODB||

    Correct. The guy in the front is the 'engineer' because, well, they run an engine and they sort of got there first.

  • Ben of Houston||

    I can't say about Oregon, but in Texas, No. Page 54. 137.3(2).
    Train "Engineers" are the people who design the trains, not the ones who run them.

  • Agammamon||

    Its not that clear cut.

    '. . . .unless authorized by another provision in the Act' - means having to comb through to see if there are other exceptions (several are listed in this section alone).

  • Brandybuck||

    California may be a dumb state, but unlike Oregon we can at least pump our own gas and call ourselves engineers. And as crazy as our proggies may be, they got nothing on Portland proggies.

  • ||

    Still traumatized by the time I was in NJ and they wouldn't let me pump my own gas.

    A very GTFOH moment.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    A guy almost tackled me last time I was in Oregon and got out of the car. Those people are crazy.

  • Brandybuck||

    I'm still traumatized by having to drive on the New Jersey Turnpike!

  • aelhues||

    That gas pumping restriction confuses me. If a person from NJ drives across the border they have no option but to pump their own gas, but inside NJ, they are not qualified to do so...Maybe the gas in NJ is extra volatile, or the gas pumps are extra, super complicated?

  • Zeb||

    I think the only justification at this point is to make work for gas pump attendants.

  • BYODB||

    I think one could safely call it 'workfare' since it's somewhere between welfare and working.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Have you ever been to NJ? People can't even drive in the rain, do you really want them handling flammable chemicals?

  • Agammamon||

    And despite New Jersey being something like 20 miles wide and 90% of its residents work in NYC, they will, with a straight face, claim that pumping your own gas is dangerous and should be left to trained professionals.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Well, you can pump your own gas now in Oregon: though only at stand-alone gas stations in counties with fewer than 40,000 residents. Elsewhere, the ban still holds.

    Baby steps... baby steps.

  • ||

    I'm a Detect Bull Shit engineer.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    But have you been licensed in Oregon?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    One would hope the dues paying members of the society/association would find out how much time the board is spending on chasing down these Interlopers. It's like they have nothing better to do with their time and may not be necessary...

  • BYODB||

    Uhh...that's what the paying members want the association to do since it inflates their income. That's the reason for the board's existence, in fact. I mean, what else would you expect a board to spend money on if not shake down competitors?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    What, Reason staff all on vacation?

  • Bender B. Rodriguez||

    Can I call myself an Audio Engineer, or am I just a Sound Guy? I mean, I own a mixing board and all...

  • Gman 6517||

    You know what they say about Engineers,
    There's one at the front of every train wreck.

  • Dillinger||

    Casey Jones you'd better watch your speed.

    >>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.

    on its face this is ridiculous.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Wow. Is anyone qualified to say whether or not a proposed power plant will be too noisy for residents? Just the politicians, right?

  • Hank Phillips||

    Soothsayers, chicken entrails readers, fortunetellers, creation scientist impersonators, climate scientist impersonators, and time travelers--if licensed, bonded and insured.

  • Hank Phillips||

    So the econazi saboteur was hoist by its own petard? Aaaaaah yes. Down, my schadenfreude!

  • Two Buck Chuck||

    Hey Oregon...I'M AN ENGINEER TOO!



    If I were a resident of the state of Oregon and I wrote a letter to the main newspaper in Portland and called the chair of the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying a putz, would the board fine me for illegally practicing a critique of Putzism? I willingly concede that I am not a Putz Meister, but I do know a putz when I see one.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Depends. Are you Ashkenazi/a Yiddish speaker via ancestral heritage? If not then use of the word "putz" is cultural appropriation so put down that bagel and prepare for the foreskin re-attachment ceremony of shame. Of course no actual Jewish people are offended by the wider adoption of such terms, but you can be sure that someone will be offended on their behalf, unsolicited, to score political points against evil people like you who would dare insult your betters in government.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    PS - 'Putz Meister' was my nickname at Upper East Side rabbi camp.

  • Spookk||

    Nice to see a real libertarian-oriented story on this site. And a win for all of us to boot.

  • tommhan||

    Nice to see free speech win.

  • Mickey Rat||

    I wonder if the Oregon Board now regrets allowing themselves to be used to corruptly punish a political gadfly for daring to criticize the planning of almighty government?

  • FlameCCT||

    Makes me wonder if they require a special exam for "Sanitation Engineers"?

  • Qsl||

    Waiting for sex work to become legalized and form their own professional organizations.

    And the amount of fines they'll level against any legislative body.

    "You need a certification for that."

  • Uncle Jay||

    No, dammit, no!
    The courts are there to terminate free speech, not expand it.
    What's wrong with Oregon?
    Have they all become a bunch of free speech cheerleaders?
    What would Stalin say?

  • pabloat8000||

    Licensing doesn't mean drivers are better. Where is the proof that shows licensing is anything other than greasing greasy palms to raise the bar on competition?

  • PKickit||

    Is the Army Corps of Engineers allowed into Oregon? I hear they have no engineering training and are akin to glorified ditch diggers; hired hands who move dirt and pour concrete based on a design by an actual Engineer. Professional engineers who have worked with them have horror stories of lax building standards, ignored specs, etc. If you let them do their own design and build, you get the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So I'm wondering how Oregon deals with them.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Ah yes, hearsay. Good luck with that, gnosse!

  • Hank Phillips||

    Excellent! Once medical licensing extortion is no longer a coercive thing, we can repeal socialized medicine and send antichoice infiltrators back to George Wallace's party and the Gee-Oh-Pee.


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