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Engineer’s Free Speech Victory Leads to New Traffic Recommendations

One of the things that sets IJ’s First Amendment practice apart is our belief that freedom of speech isn’t just about protests or politics—it’s about all the ways that the free flow of information enhances human life. That’s why IJ has long focused on defending commercial and occupational speech: Both are socially valuable forms of speech that courts have historically neglected. This approach has led to stunning courtroom victories that have paved the way for real-life changes.

There can be no better recent example of this than the story of IJ client Mats Järlström.

Regular readers of Liberty & Law may recall Mats as the Oregon-based electrical engineer who began a one-man quest to change traffic-light timing after his wife received a red-light ticket. With his training as an engineer, Mats discovered a flaw with the 55-year-old formula that governed the timing of yellow lights: The formula worked great for cars driving straight through intersections, but it failed to account for drivers—like Mats’ wife—who needed to slow down to turn in an intersection. The result was unreasonably short yellow lights that led to more tickets and more dangerous roads.

When Mats tried to make his discovery known, the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying fined him $500. His supposed offense? The unlicensed practice of engineering. According to the Board, Mats broke the law simply by doing math.

Represented by IJ, Mats sued the Oregon Board and won. In December 2018, a federal court held that Mats’ speech on traffic lights was fully protected by the First Amendment.

Normally, that’s where Liberty & Law articles end, with IJ riding to the rescue, winning for our client, and setting an important precedent that can be used by others who face violation of their rights. But what happens next to our individual clients is equally important: They get to use their hard-won freedom, and the impact can be extraordinary.

In March, we got an unmistakable reminder of that impact: The Institute of Transportation Engineers—the organization that sets international standards for traffic safety—formally announced that it was adopting Mats’ formula as the standard for determining traffic-light timing. It is the first time the formula has been changed in more than half a century.

The vote could have wide-ranging international ramifications by giving drivers a little more time to get through intersections safely while avoiding frustrating red-light tickets. And it almost didn’t happen, all because a government agency thought it could prohibit the unlicensed practice of math.

What’s perhaps even more remarkable is that, until recently, the Oregon Board’s position was conventional wisdom: Occupational licensing boards across the country routinely behaved as though the First Amendment didn’t apply to them. And in too many cases, federal courts agreed.

Not anymore. Thanks to cases like Mats’, IJ has reminded courts and government agencies that there is no “occupational licensing” exception to the First Amendment.

Now we can see the real-world benefits of those victories. If Mats Järlström, working on his own, can improve traffic safety for drivers all over the world, imagine what could be accomplished if everyone were free to share their ideas without government censorship.

Let’s find out.

Paul Sherman is an IJ senior attorney.

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