VICTORY: Engineer Can Talk About Engineering

Robert McNamara
Robert McNamara  ·  March 1, 2024

Longtime Liberty & Law readers will remember the story of Wayne Nutt—the North Carolina engineer who was told by state officials that he had committed a crime by claiming he had “engineering expertise.” Wayne, of course, has plenty of engineering expertise: He worked as an engineer for over 40 years, mostly in North Carolina, designing things like fluid-carrying pipes. That work had all been fine. Before retiring, Wayne worked for large companies and so had been exempt from the state’s engineer-licensing law; he could design pipes and supervise the construction of those pipes without any problems.

But he got into trouble when he agreed to testify for free in a trial about a drainpipe that had allegedly caused a major flood. Wayne’s testimony was straightforward: He knows how to calculate how much liquid will flow through a pipe, and so he can tell you what the effect will be of blocking off some of that pipe. He crunched the numbers, and, to this day, nobody has ever claimed he did the math wrong. The only problem was that he wasn’t a licensed engineer, and so doing the math, said the state, was a crime. He hadn’t needed a license to design things, or even to actually build those things, but he needed a license to say things.

That struck Wayne as wrong. In his experience, engineering is often about criticism and collaboration. The best way to figure out what will work is to get widespread feedback, not to shut people up. He wanted to fight back.

That, of course, is where IJ came in. We sued, as we do, and we brought the glare of public attention onto the situation. And the public, as you might imagine, did not look kindly on state officials who told a 77-year-old engineer he was breaking the law by doing math.

In a more sensible world, that might have ended things. But the state seemed immune to shame. It doubled down, retaining an expert witness who solemnly told us that it was important to forbid unlicensed engineers from talking because, otherwise, someone might believe what they said. At a hearing in the case last year, the state’s lawyer even breathlessly told the judge that the problem wasn’t just that Wayne talked about how the drainage pipe worked—it was that he was “critical of the design of the system.” 

But that’s the thing: Wayne—just like the rest of us—has every right to be “critical of the design of the system.” And in December, a federal judge agreed, issuing a permanent injunction that forbids the state from requiring Wayne (or anyone else) to hold an engineering license just to express his opinions. Our victory was cemented earlier this year when the state declined to appeal.

That means the next time Wayne notices a flaw in a design or a math mistake in a public report, he’ll be free to point it out. And Wayne is guaranteed to notice a flaw in a design or a math mistake in a report. He can’t help it. He’s an engineer.

And now he’s free to tell you that.

Robert McNamara is IJ’s deputy litigation director.

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