Guy Fined $500 For Criticizing Government Without A Permit Sues Oregon Licensing Board

from the with-a-special-appearance-by-[STATE-REVENUE-GENERATOR-A] dept

Government entities tend to dislike people who criticize red light cameras. There’s little evidence supporting the theory they make driving safer, but there’s plenty of data out there showing just how profitable they can be, especially with a little fine tuning.

When someone takes it upon themselves to dig into traffic cameras, they make few friends at city hall. Oregon resident Mats Jarlstrom’s interest in red light cameras was piqued like so many others: by receiving a ticket. Unlike some others, Jarlstrom has a background in electronic engineering and the inherent inquisitiveness to follow through on a thorough examination of yellow light timing. He did some math and came to the conclusion the timing was off.

In his view, the leading mathematical formula for calculating the proper length of yellow lights (dating back to 1959) is incomplete, because it fails to account for how drivers decelerate before making a right-hand turn. Mats’s revised theory addresses that issue; his formula is based on the 1959 model but also factors in the time needed for turning drivers to clear the intersection.

Jarlstrom’s apparent mistake was not keeping these findings to himself. He spoke to local news stations about his research and presented his conclusions to a national conference of transportation engineers. The only entity that didn’t want to hear anything about his yellow light research was his local government. He tried to present his findings to the state traffic engineering body but found it less than receptive to new ideas.

In response to Jarlstrom’s exercise of his First Amendment rights, the Oregon state engineering licensing board opened an investigation. Unsurprisingly, it arrived at the conclusion that it hadn’t handed out an engineering license to Jarlstrom. Surprisingly, this effort wasted nearly two years of taxpayer time and money.

According to the Board, Mats illegally practiced engineering without a license every time he “critique[d]” the existing traffic-light system and shared his ideas with “members of the public.” Even his e-mail to the creator of the original formula was ruled illegal. So was his correspondence with local media.

Weird. Stupid. But at least the licensing law is narrowly-tailored, right?

The practice of engineering is defined to cover “any . . . creative work requiring engineering education, training and experience.” And the law is just as sweeping as it sounds. Even the Oregon Attorney General’s Office has admitted that it’s “a broad definition which may have a particular meaning to those persons trained and knowledgeable in engineering but may be unclear to anyone else.

Having found something to use against a critic of outdated traffic light measuring systems, the Oregon licensing board went all out. It told Jarlstrom he could no longer refer to himself as an “engineer” (despite his BS in electronic engineering). It compiled a list of nine violations and fined him $500.

It also nailed down something else: the starring role of defendant in an upcoming civil rights lawsuit, as the Institute for Justice reports:

Today he filed a lawsuit [PDF] against the board in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the state’s requirement that citizens must obtain an engineering license in order to publicly debate anything involving “engineering.”

IJ points out the board’s regulation of speech is not just unconstitutional, it’s ridiculous.

Criticizing the government’s engineering isn’t a crime; it’s a constitutional right,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Mats in the lawsuit. “Under the First Amendment, you don’t need to be a licensed lawyer to write an article critical of a Supreme Court decision, you don’t need to be a licensed landscape architect to create a gardening blog, and you don’t need to be a licensed engineer to talk about traffic lights. Whether or not you use math, criticizing the government is a core constitutional right that cannot be hampered by onerous licensing requirements.”

In essence, the Oregon board fined Mats Jarlstrom for doing math and then talking about it. Apparently, no one’s allowed to do their own math and speak publicly about it without the express, licensed permission of the state’s regulators. While the board is there to prevent non-engineers from harming the public by building faulty bridges and buildings (or, more to the point, fiddling with traffic light timing to drivers’ detriment), it shouldn’t be able to keep anyone from discussing their own research or referring to their engineering background and expertise.

Jarlstrom simply wanted his findings to be considered. He had no power to alter traffic light timing or otherwise pose some sort of safety risk to Oregon drivers. And yet, the licensing board subjected him to a lengthy investigation and told him what he could and couldn’t discuss publicly. Apparently certain topics of discussion are off limits to the general public unless the government ok’s it through a very long and expensive process.

Like many government things, the underlying concept is good, but the execution is horrible. And, in this case, the government was less concerned with the safety of the public than with shutting up a critic poking holes in long-held government theories.

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Comments on “Guy Fined $500 For Criticizing Government Without A Permit Sues Oregon Licensing Board”

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63 Comments
David (profile) says:

Re: Engineering license

The State of Oregon does provide Engineering licenses. They are based on civil engineering requirements.

As far back as the 70’s they were pushing for software developers to require procuring a license from them. Of course, they are a very math centric solution (the board, not all SW devs) and one suspects that the demise of Fortran beyond its intended (and very successful) purpose of scientific programming let those efforts sputtering for air.

Fear not, as far as I have been able to determine this particular bureaucracy has little need for air. They have their heads located in a place where (clean) air is rarely provided.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: lICENSE?

No, a vote happens after they start politicking.

What ECA is referring to is that if it is constitutional to require a license in order to exercise the right to freedom of speech to make a truthful and factual statement (with an attached mathematical proof even), then it cannot be unconstitutional to require such a license (and accompanying competence test) to become a politician.

John Cressman (profile) says:

There is nothing...

There is nothing the government cannot screw up. If you take any well oiled process and give it to the government, within a short time it will cost substantially more and produce substantially less.

Same thing with ANYTHING the government subsidizes. Once you take free market out of the equation and return on investment, efficiency goes out the window.

That One Guy (profile) says:

We can't fine you for the truth, but we can and will beat you over the head with a lie

Yeah, I’m calling shenanigans, in particular the excuse they used to fine him. This strikes me as a ‘You made the rest of us look bad’ retaliatory action, where he had the audacity to make public something that makes people in powerful positions look bad, and even worse threatened a lucrative and easy source of money, so they fined him to try to shut him up.

Hopefully the judge sees this as the blatant attempt to silence someone that it is and hands out a hearty benchslap to the board.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What about the school?

With Engineering, you get the degree, then you spend a few years as an engineering technologist, then you file your log books with the board, then you pay them money and wait for them to give you your certificate and stamp.

You need the degree first; often a P.Eng, not just a BS.

Engineering boards value actual experience as much as classroom training.

OGquaker says:

Re: Re: Re:

”Engineering boards value actual experience as much as classroom training.”
A childhood friend living on 400 acres in Oregon made his $millions as a radio and microwave inventor (he says that Politicians and Police should be castrated as a first condition of their employment).
I’ve got 60 years using math to build things that i designed, mostly on-offs for customers, my father got 9 patents and the Legion Of Merit, and both my grandfathers built factories and an electrical sub-stations (for one of California’s still successful Communist power companies)
All without education past 8th or 12th grade. Are we In?
Or am looking at bankruptcy?
Elon Musk better keep overflying OR.

David says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Shrug. You don’t need a degree when you defined the field. Donald Knuth ("The Art of Computer Programming" Donald Knuth, the guy who wrote the TeX typesetting program because he considered the proposed computer typesetting of his second edition of TAoCP as opposed to the previous manual typesetting a blight on computers) had no degree in Computer Science, "just" mathematics.

A degree certifies that you can successfully trace the footsteps of giants.

And depending on the college or school, it may not be the worst starting lane to becoming one.

Most people holding their own in a profession for which they have no formal education polish their stories of having outclassed people boasting degrees of PhD upwards.

I mean, I have my own story where I gave up on improving a map data processing program optimized by some CSc PhD to the degree where it ran 1 instead of 2 days and asked my employer (I was a jobbing student) to be allowed to rewrite the principal core from scratch. Which was several weeks, not a trivial investment even in student hours. Once the stuff passed compiler and ran without crashing, it took me an additional day of debugging to figure out why it just terminated after 2 minutes of running time. Not being able to find the problem in the program flow, I tried debugging by visualizing the output data, only to find that the program terminated because it was actually done.

That was sobering. Of course, I had a long history of working with and on computers before enrolling in university. And the CSc PhD would likely have been qualified better to calculate the asymptotic running time of both his and my version. But being able to evaluate a tool still does not mean that you pick the right one for the job.

Of course, this was in the age of C. With C++ and STL, the likelihood that those graduates say "I know $x would be better in theory but it’s so tedious to program" has gone down. Basically, they are able to work less than a scientist (never mind the degree title) or artisan these days and more than an engineer, relying on proper tools crafted by the top of the crop.

Christenson says:

Who's an engineer?

In some theory, when calculations involve the public safety, a licensed professional engineer should be involved.

In practice, a PE license is more like a taxi cab medallion. Very difficult to get if you aren’t in the club — remember you need professional references from club members!

By that theory, an awful lot of programmers and others working for industry under the “industrial practice exemption” should have licenses. The automotive sudden acceleration disaster (see the Barr report — it was incompetent software engineering) illustrates well.

Now, assuming that there should be an official badge of “PE”, and the distinction is important here, the right solution here would not to be to fine the guy…it should be to require him to disclose that he doesn’t have the badge in a reasonably prominent place.

David (profile) says:

Welcome to Oregon, sigh.

I often describe Oregon to outsiders, and the occasional visitor, as being essentially psychotic. Portland and a significant swath of the Willamette Valley is liberal. Definitely very Blue in our current political sense. Nearly all of the rest of the state is conservative.

The red sections of the state are sparsely populated and provide a higher total number of electors. Thus many of the laws puking from Salem (our dubious capitol) have very strong punishment based solutions. If solutions they can even be called.

The good news is I live in Portland, not in ‘what Constitution’ rural Oregon. It’s essential news item is that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. Possibly less in Spring and Fall.

Medical Marijuana is now balanced with recreational use. However our very large prison system employs large numbers of conservative voters and the chance of a pardon for existing law scofflaws is unlikely.

My opinions are definitely not shared by much of my state and are thus my own.

ActualOregonian says:

Re: Welcome to Oregon, sigh.

This is the most accurate and saddening description of Oregon I have seen in a while. Most everyone I know lives in the liberal Portland bubble and thinks a lot of the state agrees and that Salem is just slow in adjusting to what the people want, but that is definitely not the case. Most of my family is from the Albany/Sweethome area and they are vehemently in support of Trump and hail him as the second coming (I exaggerate to you not). Everyone they live around agrees with them and everyone who doesn’t, moves to Portland and only socializes with them on holidays (sorry Grandma). This has only made the divide way worse so our state feels kind of fractured into two main factions that are incredibly polarized.

Anonymous Coward says:

psst . . .

if you wanna design a non-round duct large enough that it flows approximately as well as a round duct of a given diameter, use this thumbnail equation:

DIAM = (4 x AREA) / PERIMETER

where DIAM is the desired round-duct diameter and AREA and PERIMETER are what you are proposing to use. ignore any really tight corners as they won’t allow much flow.

pass it on, but keep it on the QT.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Engineer is as engineer does

He who discovers scientific principles is a scientist.

He who designs things using the discoveries of science is an engineer.

He who builds things is a technician.

License schmicense and degrees be dammed.

He who does, is.

(Yes, that goes for doctors too. Just don’t call yourself a “licensed” physician if you’re not, and it’s fine with me.)

ActualOregonian says:

Re: Re:

Ha! This one has always driven me bonkers. I have sat at the pump for more than 30 minutes before just waiting for someone to come help me because I couldn’t legally do it myself. It is absolutely ridiculous. Also, anytime I go on a road trip to Washington not alone, I have to teach my adult friends how to pump their own gas. We are all in our 20’s we should know how to pump gas…

Anonymous Coward says:

I think at times like these, when the government agents are so very wrong, and after they get slapped by the court for their incompetent malicious acts, anyone on that board who voted to fine this guy needs to lose their job and never be allowed to hold a government job ever again.

If you are so completely uninformed about basic Constitutional rights, you shouldn’t be able to hold office anywhere.

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

Hm... wonder if this ploy can be used...

… to call out the B.S. that is the H-1B game. Lord knows I have worked with a series of folks labeled “Engineers” that could not get a P.E. License because of their immigration status. Then again, given the amount of work I have seen produced from drawings with nary a single state stamp – it will most likely be a fool’s errand.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So, I got a question

I mean, abolishing the boards isn’t so much the trouble – there’s a very valid case for the “if you’re going to give us a plan for a building or a bridge (etc) to be built, we want to make sure that you actually know what the hell you’re doing” purpose of a PE license.

It’s using said bureaucracy (and not for the first time in OR, from other articles I read about this case) as a bludgeon to try and shut up the speech you don’t like that’s the issue…

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