PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Calling it a “rare” and “unusual” case, the Attorney General for Oregon admits the state violated a Beaverton man’s first amendment right to free speech. The state is conceding the violation as it hopes to make Mats Järlström’s federal lawsuit go away, but the Beaverton electronics expert wants to continue his suit on behalf of others like him.
The case stems from Järlström’s efforts to prove red light cameras are setting drivers up for tickets they can’t avoid. The state fined him $500 for the “unlicensed practice of engineering,” even though he says clients at his electronics business don’t require or even care if he’s licensed. Järlström has a degree in electrical engineering, but like most people practicing engineering in the United States, he does not have a state engineering license.
His frustration was felt all the way in Washington D.C. where the Institute for Justice, which fights for peoples’ constitutional rights, decided to back him.
The group filed a federal lawsuit, arguing the State of Oregon can’t own the word engineer and “…to vindicate the right of Plaintiff Mats Järlström to talk and write freely without fear of government punishment.”
Järlström’s lawyers claim the government has no legitimate interest in restricting who can talk about or critique engineering principles.
The Attorney General’s Office argues the state has a critical interest in regulating who calls themselves an engineer, to ensure things like bridges and buildings are built correctly. Christina Beatty-Walters of the AG’s Office says Järlström should be free to talk about his red light camera theories as long as he is not paid to do it, or shares his information in “professional” and “commercial” speech. Judge Stacie Beckerman expressed concerns during a hearing in downtown Portland Monday about how those terms could possibly be defined and differentiated from free speech.
Järlström’s lawyers told the judge he has the right to continue his lawsuit, so other people practicing engineering without a license can continue their work without fear of being punished by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineers and Land Surveying. The State already refunded Järlström the $500 fine. The lawyer for the Attorney General argues the case should be settled for Järlström alone, because the State is giving him “all the relief he needs to continue doing what he’s doing.”
One of the other people facing similar discipline from the state is former Oregon gubernatorial candidate Allen Alley. The state has a pending case against the Republican for using the “e” word in a campaign ad without passing the state’s licensing test.
“Fundamentally, I think it’s wrong that people like me and Mats are going through this when we haven’t really claimed anything that we’re not.” Alley said after attending Järlström’s court hearing. “I have a degree from Purdue. I’ve practiced at Ford and Boeing, I’ve run engineering companies. I’ve won awards for being an engineer. I didn’t say I was a licensed professional engineer.”
The judge told lawyers she would likely issue her ruling in a couple weeks.
According to the National Council of Examiners of Engineering and Surveying, there were 481,717 licensed engineers in the U.S. in 2016. But the National Society of Professional Engineers estimates about 2 million people are practicing engineering.
Many engineering professors aren’t required to be licensed engineers. At Oregon State University, only 13 of 45 faculty members in the Civil and Construction Engineering department have their engineering licenses. The university encourages but does not require their faculty members to become licensed engineers.
“The number drops dramatically outside that department because it’s not as critical to their success,” Scott Ashford, Dean of the OSU College of Engineering, said.
The Institute for Justice is representing Järlström for free, and they’re not seeking any monetary damages. Järlström says this is all about principles.