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.