Engineer Fined for Saying He's an Engineer

Imagine you told someone you were an accountant or an attorney as a way to explain that you had relevant expertise to a discussion, then got fined $500 for it. You'd probably be pretty livid. Especially if you went to law school or graduated with a degree in accounting.

Yet that's what happened to Mats Järlström of Beaverton, Oregon, when he reached out to the state to talk about how the yellow lights at traffic signals weren't on for long enough and represented a risk to public safety.

This email resulted not with a meeting, but with a threat. The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying responded with this dystopian message:

"ORS 672.020(1) prohibits the practice of engineering in Oregon without registration … at a minimum, your use of the title 'electronics engineer' and the statement 'I'm an engineer' … create violations."

In January of this year, Järlström was officially fined $500 by the state for the crime of "practicing engineering without being registered."

Now, to be clear, Järlström wasn't seeking pay for his efforts. All of his research has been on his own time and he was simply presenting the information as a private citizen.

However, he's been fined.

Occupational licensing laws exist, in theory, to protect the public from improperly trained individuals putting the public at risk. It's how we make sure doctors and structural engineers actually know what they're doing so people don't die.

Unfortunately, here it's being applied to a man who was trained as an electronics engineer, which means he's not presenting himself as anything other than what he is. Since he's not trying to seek monetary gain from his efforts--in other words, he's not trying to use engineering as an occupation--an occupational license is beyond ridiculous.

Järlström is now filing a lawsuit over the situation.

And yet, the engineering board in Oregon says he should not be free to publish or present his ideas. Tuesday, Järlström and the Institute for Justice sued the engineering board in federal court for Violating his First Amendment rights.

"Mats has a clear First Amendment right to talk about anything from taxes to traffic rights," Sam Gedge, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, told me. "It's an instance of a licensing board trying to suppress speech."

Järlström, for his part, said he never expected anything like this to happen when he moved to the United States from Sweden 20 years ago.

I'm sure he didn't. However, here's hoping the courts step up and remind the engineering board that free speech is still free.