When engineering and the First Amendment collide
By Richard Massey
It started with a Volkswagen, a traffic light, and a ticket in Beaverton, Oregon, back in spring 2013. Mundane enough.
But enter Swedish-born Mats Jarlstrom, the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, and the libertarian Institute for Justice, and you have the makings for a juicy court case centered around the wellsprings of American life – freedom of speech and due process.
Sam Gedge, Institute for Justice
Jarlstrom filed suit against the Oregon board, known as OSBEELS, in late April in US District Court for the District of Oregon, Portland Division, claiming the board trampled his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. In his suit, Jarlstrom claims the state engineering board violated the Constitution when it issued him a $500 ticket for describing himself as an “engineer” despite not being licensed as such in the state of Oregon.
What Jarlstrom is doing is challenging the accepted mathematical formula for calculating the duration of yellow lights and to implement what he says is a better system, one that takes into account the extra time it takes to make a legal right-hand turn. According to the suit, people have taken an interest in his ideas, including Alexei Maradudin, pioneer of the yellow light timing system.
Alas, according to the suit, Oregon state law only allows licensed engineers to “speak publicly on these sorts of topics.”
The Jarlstrom conflict goes back to the 2013 traffic ticket, given to Jarlstrom’s wife for running a red light – an incident that was caught on red-light camera. Ignited by the citation, Jarlstrom set out to create a better system for traffic signals, and while pitching his ideas to governmental officials and the media, described himself as an “engineer.” Based on the arguments laid out in his suit, Jarlstrom says he should be able to use such a title because he was educated to be, and worked as, an engineer back in his native Sweden.
In his suit, filed on his behalf by the Institute for Justice, Jarlstrom provides this justification: “Jarlsrtom is proud of having graduated with the equivalent of a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. He is also proud of his experience working in technical fields with the Swedish Air Force and Luxor Electronics abroad and with Triad Speakers here in Oregon.”
But Oregon state officials never saw it his way. They asked him to stop calling himself an engineer, mounted a two-year investigation, and in light of his statements to government officials and the press, in August saddled Jarlstrom with a $500 fine.
In its final order, issued in January, the state engineering board had this to say: “Jarlstrom is not now, and never has been, registered to practice engineering in Oregon, or any other state in the United States.”
Though Jarlstrom paid the fine, he did not accept the state’s conclusion. Instead, he filed the federal lawsuit and is expected to seek a preliminary injunction so that he can continue to call himself an engineer while the case trickles its way through the court system – and as he continues to pitch his traffic-signal ideas.
His attorney, Sam Gedge, said Jarlstrom is eager to prove his case.
“Mats is very resilient,” Gedge said. “He’s excited to vindicate his First Amendment rights. We’ll take this as far as we can.”
The Oregon engineering board, OSBEELS, declined comment.
According to the Institute for Justice's webpage, it has litigated five cases before the US Supreme Court, winning four of them. The institute’s key efforts focus on school choice, economic liberty, the First Amendment, and private property. Institute cases similar to Jarlstrom’s include one out of Kentucky and one out of Texas regarding psychologist licensing boards, the dietetics board in North Carolina, and the engineering board in New Mexico.
“It’s a recurring problem,” Gedge said. “Cases popping up across the country with state boards trying to tell people what they can and can’t say.”
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