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Engineering the System

Oregon Man Fined for Writing 'I Am an Engineer' Temporarily Wins the Right to Call Himself an 'Engineer'

Mats Järlström was fined $500 by the state of Oregon for writing 'I am an engineer' in an email to the government.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

Image: Institute for Justice

An electrical engineer fined by the Oregon engineering board for calling himself an "engineer" and talking about traffic lights has been granted the temporary right by a judge to both publicly call himself an "engineer" and to talk about traffic lights.

I didn't think I'd ever write that sentence in America, but the tale of Mats Järlström is a strange one. As I reported last month, Järlström has spent much of the last few years on something of a vision quest to present new ideas about the ideal timing of yellow traffic lights after his wife was caught running a red light by a traffic camera.

His calculations—which he shared with local police, as well as the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying—suggest that at certain intersections, yellow lights don't last long enough, prompting a 60 Minutes investigation as well as a speaking gig at the Institute of Transportation Engineers's annual conference.

Rather than investigating those claims, however, the Oregon engineering board asked Järlström to stop calling himself an engineer, and in January fined him $500 for the crime of "practicing engineering without being registered."

Last month, Järlström sued the engineering board for violating his First Amendment rights, and Tuesday a federal judge gave Järlström the temporary right to call himself an engineer, pending the results of his case.

"Plaintiff Järlström may study, communicate publicly about, and communicate privately his theories relating to traffic lights throughout the pendency of this litigation as long as [his] communications occur outside the context of a paid employment or contractual relationship," Anna Brown, a federal district court judge for the district of Oregon, ordered. He "may describe himself publicly and privately using the word 'engineer' throughout the pendency of this litigation."

Järlström's attorneys say this is a promising sign and a "critical first step in protecting Oregonians' First Amendment rights."

The story set off something of a firestorm online as First Amendment activists and software engineers argued with civil and electrical engineers about so-called "protected classes" of jobs. Critics of Järlström say that "engineer" implies a specific level of expertise, and for public safety reasons, such titles can only be conferred by state engineering boards. His lawyers say that's nonsense.

"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," Sam Gedge, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice, said in a statement.