June 2, 2017

No matter where you live, running a red light can earn you a ticket. But in Oregon, even talking about traffic lights can get you fined.

Regular Liberty & Law readers know IJ has fought—and won—against state licensing agencies that often moonlight as censorship boards. The Kentucky psychology board targeted nationally syndicated columnist John Rosemond for writing about parents and children. North Carolina went after Steve Cooksey for writing about diet and lifestyle tips.

Now Oregon’s engineer licensing board has put speech suppression into overdrive. In 2013, Mats Järlström, a Swedish immigrant and longtime Oregon resident, got interested in a question most people do not think much about: How exactly are yellow traffic lights timed? Mats has a math and science background—he has a degree in electrical engineering and decades of experience working in technical fields—and he came up with an idea for how the mathematical formula for timing yellow lights could be improved.

As a private citizen, Mats has no power to alter traffic lights anywhere, just as he has no power to relocate stop signs or repaint pavement markings. Instead, he did what anyone with a new idea does: He talked about it.

Mats shared his ideas with the academic community, with government officials and with the media, and lots of people have been interested in hearing what he has to say. He even presented his theories at a conference on transportation issues.

But things came to a screeching halt when Oregon’s engineering board got wind that Mats was talking publicly about math. It launched a two-year government investigation against Mats, and last November it fined him $500. According to the board, Mats had broken the law by “critiquing” traffic light timing and by publicly sharing his “special knowledge of the mathematical, physical and engineering sciences” relating to traffic lights.

In other words, unless Mats becomes an Oregon licensed professional engineer, it is quite literally a crime for him to talk publicly about the math behind yellow lights. It is also a crime for him to call himself a “Swedish engineer” in any setting. In Oregon, even the word “engineer” is off limits to everyone who is not an Oregon licensed professional engineer.

This type of government censorship strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. And Mats’ experience is far from unique. In recent years, Oregon’s engineering board has launched investigations against people based on speech in voter guides, in a political ad, even at a town hall meeting. In one case, the board fined a retiree for using the wrong words when he complained that city employees had flooded his basement.

Talking about math is not a crime; it is a First Amendment right. That is why IJ has teamed up with Mats in filing a federal lawsuit against Oregon’s engineering board. Mats is asking the courts to reaffirm what should be obvious: that the First Amendment guarantees Americans their right to debate anything and everything, from theology to taxes to traffic lights—and no one needs a government permission slip to talk.

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