March 21, 2019

By Sam Gedge

Liberty & Law readers will recall the outrageous case of red light camera critic Mats Järlström. Mats—a Swedish immigrant and longtime Oregon resident—made national headlines in 2017 after Oregon’s engineer licensing board fined him for writing about traffic lights and for calling himself, truthfully, an “engineer.”

For many people, Mats’ story displayed government overreach at its worst. Mats had become fascinated by an issue most of us don’t think much about: How exactly are yellow traffic lights timed? He came up with an idea for improving the mathematical formula for timing yellow lights. And he did what most people do when they come up with a new idea: He told others about it.

But things came to a screeching halt when Oregon’s engineering board learned about Mats. The agency launched a two-year investigation and fined him $500. According to the board, Mats had broken its rules by sharing “special knowledge of the mathematical, physical and engineering sciences” relating to traffic lights and by describing himself as an “engineer” without being licensed in the state of Oregon.

In April 2017—just weeks after IJ sued the board on Mats’ behalf—the board began backpedaling furiously. It admitted it was violating Mats’ First Amendment rights. It even volunteered a check for $500 in a desperate effort to make IJ’s case go away.

But despite being willing to give Mats his money back, the board proved far less willing to change its ways going forward. Everyone who wasn’t Mats would have just had to take it on faith that the board would act responsibly in the future. Those half measures weren’t good enough for Mats or IJ. We pressed on, demanding meaningful relief for Mats and for all Oregonians.

After reviewing more than 18,000 pages of documents provided by the government during discovery, we uncovered a disturbing pattern of First Amendment violations. Since the 1930s, the board had insisted that state-licensed Professional Engineers—those who can approve plans for a building or bridge—alone could describe themselves using the word “engineer.” All other engineers—software engineers, aerospace engineers, and locomotive engineers, to name a few—could not. In recent years, moreover, the agency had been harassing people for using the word “engineer” in voter pamphlets, political ads, emails, blogs, websites, and even individual photographs on websites. In fact, the board’s role as censor was something of a joke within the agency; at one meeting, officials quipped about “tak[ing] down Dilbert” for being an unlicensed (cartoon) engineer.

Armed with this evidence, Mats and IJ asked a federal court to end these abuses once and for all. And this past December, the court granted Mats almost all the relief he sought. It confirmed that Mats can describe himself as an “engineer.” It confirmed that he can share his theories about traffic lights. It voiced concern over “the Board’s history of overzealous enforcement actions,” and it declared the agency’s ban on the word “engineer” unconstitutionally overbroad.

If Mats’ case showcased government at its worst, it also showed IJ clients at their best. For ordinary Americans, being targeted by the government is frightening; even agencies no one has heard of wield formidable power, often with little oversight. Standing up to bullies takes courage. At IJ, it’s our privilege to represent people like Mats who have the grit to take on bullies and to make their communities freer.

Sam Gedge is an IJ attorney and the Elfie Gallun Fellow for Freedom and the Constitution.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.