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


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.


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