Federal Court Says Oregon's Unconstitutional Licensing Law Can't Keep Local Engineer From Calling Himself An Engineer

from the state-spent-a-year-fighting-over-$500 dept

Oregon resident Matt Jarlstrom didn't agree with the state's traffic safety assessment, spurred on by his wife receiving a ticket from a red light camera. Using his background in engineering and his real-world experience with automatic cameras, he did some math and tried to present it to government officials. The government didn't respond well. It fined Jarlstrom $500 for practicing engineering without a license. In the state of Oregon, certification is needed to call yourself an engineer, even if you're not actually performing any engineering work. At least, that's the way the state read the law when it chose to punish Jarlstrom for questioning its timing of yellow lights.

Naturally, this stupid decision resulted in a lawsuit. Pointing out the unconstitutionality of using a licensing law to suppress protected speech, Jarlstrom sued the state in April 2017. A couple of months later, the state licensing board graciously agreed to temporarily stop violating Jarlstrom's First Amendment rights.

Six months later, the state board finally conceded defeat. It agreed it had misused the statute to punish Jarlstrom for engaging in protected speech and said he could call himself an "engineer" even without the state's prize piece of paper as it was clear he wasn't soliciting engineering work when offering up his critique of traffic light timing patterns.

Thanks to a federal court, the licensing board's admission of wrongdoing has been transformed into First Amendment precedent. As it points out in its opinion [PDF], it's nice the state licensing board has offered an apology, but that's no guarantee it won't enforce the law this way in the future and harm the free speech rights of Jarlstrom or someone else found equally irritating by state officials.

Although the Board has disavowed future enforcement and enacted new regulations, these commitments do not diminish the credibility of Plaintiff’s concerns in light of the plain meaning of the text and context of Or. Rev. Stat. § 672.007(1)(a)-(b), and especially in light of the Board’s history of overzealous enforcement actions.

The court notes the licensing statute clearly regulates speech. But it does so without narrow crafting or addressing a government concern in the least intrusive way possible. The term it addresses -- "engineer" -- is far from specific, which turns the law into a vehicle for Constitutional violations, even some that may be unintentional.

Here, calling oneself an “engineer” is “not an unverifiable opinion of the ultimate quality of a[n] [engineer’s] work or a promise of success, but is simply a fact[.]” Id. Further, a term cannot become inherently misleading simply because a state deems it so.

[...]

The Board argues that courts have upheld similar restrictions on professional titles in other fields. (Def.’s Mot. Summ. J. at 27.) The word “engineer,” however, is different than the other title restrictions courts have upheld in the past.10 Unlike “M.D.” or “certified public accountant,” there is no fixed meaning to the title “engineer.” On the contrary, there are many different types of engineers. Courts have long recognized that the term “engineer” has a generic meaning separate from “professional engineer,” and that the term has enjoyed “widespread usage in job titles in our society to describe positions which require no professional training.” [...] Indeed, many job descriptions contain the word “engineer” even though they do not require any professional engineering expertise or licensure.

To sum up:

The regulation of the title “engineer” is more burdensome than necessary to protect the public from the unlicensed practice of engineering.

The final call by the court? The law is unconstitutional. The state has earned itself a permanent injunction from enforcing it against Jarlstrom. This also means it can't enforce it this way against others it might want to fine into silence, since any other victims of state-level judgment calls like this one have both a federal court decision and the state's admission of wrongdoing to cite in their litigation.

Filed Under: engineer, free speech, matt jarlstrom, oregon, traffic camera


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 10:02am

    Bravo! It also shone light over the accuracy of the automated system. Were there any developments in that area? Because it seems to me that if the govt cannot ensure such accuracy then it is a problem, no?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 6:37am

      Doctors

      There's a rug cleaning company by the name of Rug Doctor. So, obviously, rug cleaners are doctors. Also, the dictionary includes in the definition of "doctor" as "to fix or repair something". So, almost anyone can call themselves a doctor.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 10:17am

    A victory for the First Amendment is a victory for us all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 11:19am

      Re:

      Well, not a victory for the local politicians in Oregon. :)

      Or some would argue, not a victory for states rights anytime the federales step in. (Some will - not me!)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bamboo Harvester (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 10:43am

    He must....

    ...have put something on the paperwork saying he was an engineer, otherwise it's just math and physics.

    I have an engineering degree, but I never applied for PE or CE licensing, which means I can't "inspect" or "approve" anything requiring a PE or CE stamp.

    It doesn't prevent me from doing math. Or using a crowbar, which is also Engineering.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 10:50am

      Re: He must....

      He is not a PE but he did graduate university with an engineering degree. So he can be called an engineer in the legal sense.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Paul Brinker, 8 Jan 2019 @ 10:58am

      Re: He must....

      Engineers also drive trains, build software, Design Computer Chips. Custodial Engineers keep our world clean.

      The state somehow passed a law saying all those people can not say they are engineers when the state was only really concerned with a subset.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bamboo Harvester (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 11:22am

        Re: Re: He must....

        All States have laws regarding Engineers. Licensing boards for PE, CE, and a host of other specialties.

        My suspicion is that he used wording in his filing that they took, mistakenly or not, as a claim to being a PE or CE.

        40 years back my boss of the time finished his PhD in Electrical Engineering. And managed to fudge enough on the State Motor Vehicles forms to get MD license plates.

        Try that now and they'll throw away the key...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          James Burkhardt (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 12:46pm

          Re: Re: Re: He must....

          Well, the court decision reads this state regulated the title Engineer, rather than just the more specific Professional Engineer (PE) title. It was expressly stated in the quoted areas of the decision.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Paul Brinker, 8 Jan 2019 @ 7:08pm

          Re: Re: Re: He must....

          He specifically used the words "I am an Engineer" in a letter to the state board about the timing of traffic lights being incorrect.

          Instead of fixing the problem with the lights the board chose to give him a fine for calling himself an Engineer. They backed off after the lawsuit, but it was to late as he went through with it.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 11:24am

        Re: Re: He must....

        Custodial Engineers keep our world clean.

        Is that a euphemism for Janitor or is there really an engineering discipline?

        It doesn't matter for the courts though, who have said anyone can be called an engineer.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Uriel-238 (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 11:50am

          Janitors and Custodial Engineers

          Is that a euphemism for Janitor or is there really an engineering discipline?

          Yes, and yes.

          Some disciplines of engineering focus on creating engines that self-clean, and channel systems that shuttle waste and debris away from clean areas into appropriate reservoirs. They also design vacuum cleaners, which are a pneumatic engine that serves this process.

          But Custodial Engineer and Sanitation Engineer are both euphemisms for the laborpersons who do the cleaning themselves.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 12:09pm

            Re: Janitors and Custodial Engineers

            And in some industries it's absolutely vital these people actually know how to clean and sanitize surfaces properly! So there are right and wrong ways to clean, dispose of waste, and manage the tools of the trade. Just as a rather timely example: fatbergs in sewer lines.

            https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-devon-46787461

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Paul Brinker, 8 Jan 2019 @ 7:13pm

              Re: Re: Janitors and Custodial Engineers

              Custodial Engineers are also responsible for systems like waste water removal (sewer and rain water), Dykes, Waste Stream processing (IE put all your recycling in 1 bin) and a number of other processes that require fairly specific design.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 6:21pm

        Traditionally...

        Engineers are what kept steam engines operational without exploding. It requires trust that mechanics are consistent enough and well-modeled enough that you can bet your life on it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 11:49am

      For sanity's sake you like to think so, but...

      He wouldn't have needed to, as a quote from the original article pointed out the law is not only unconstitional, it's stupidly broad.

      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.”

      The very act of crunching the numbers and sharing the information was enough to ding him according to the law and Oregon state engineering licensing board, to the point that offering his opinion, backed by his own investigation, education and experience, was considered a violation.

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 12:28pm

        Re: For sanity's sake you like to think so, but...

        Their delusion is amazing, they think they can tell people to not think without a license.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Michael, 8 Jan 2019 @ 1:46pm

          Re: Re: For sanity's sake you like to think so, but...

          It's easy, when they don't actually think, to assume others should be required to have a license to do so.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 8 Jan 2019 @ 6:19pm

        Thinking = Engineering

        Maybe we should have engineers write our laws. Such laws would may a computer to crawl through the exception trees, but at least the outcomes would be consistent.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 7:41am

          Re: Thinking = Engineering

          I'm not so sure about that.
          Engineers who get promoted to management positions seem to quickly forget many things about the trade. Those who do not are re-assigned.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 8 Jan 2019 @ 3:08pm

    I was a computer systems engineer back in the '80s and '90s. It said so on my business cards--cards provided by my employer (one of the 50 states, not the one above though). The state decided to reclassify such jobs as mine as "analyst" in the '90s. I was fine with that since it also boosted my annual wage by more than $10k. An engineer by any other name...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dan Under, 8 Jan 2019 @ 3:14pm

    Still expecting appeal in .....

    9^0.5, 8^1/3, 7^0

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2019 @ 5:40pm

    But is he credit to team?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 8:44am

    Oregon must be a filthy place to live

    Who raises the children without domestic engineers?
    Wait...do software engineers need certification on that state?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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