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North Carolina Board Tells Retired Engineer He Can’t Talk About Engineering

Wilmington resident files First Amendment lawsuit to protect his right to speak from his expertise and experience

WILMINGTON, N.C.—Wayne Nutt is an engineer. He graduated with a degree in engineering and worked most of his career in North Carolina without ever needing a license to actually work as an engineer. But now, the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors is telling Wayne that speaking publicly about engineering without a state license could lead to criminal charges. Today, Wayne teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a federal lawsuit to protect his First Amendment right to speak from his expertise and experience.

“The First Amendment protects our right to hear useful speech on complex topics,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “Talking about engineering is just that—talking—and the government has no business forbidding Wayne or anyone else from talking about their own knowledge and experience.”

Wayne may be retired, but he is an engineer at heart and speaks up when he sees people make what he believes to be engineering mistakes. He has written letters to state and county governments and testified before a county commission. But Wayne’s troubles began when he when he agreed to help his son, Kyle, a North Carolina attorney, with a case about a piping system that allegedly flooded a few local homes.

In his deposition, Wayne testified truthfully that he was not (and never had been) a licensed engineer. In fact, like the majority of engineers nationwide, Wayne was not required to get a license since he worked for a company under the state’s “industrial exception.” Instead of saying Wayne’s testimony was wrong, the defendants said it was illegal—because Wayne did not have a license to express these opinions. Astoundingly, the Board seems to agree. In May, it sent a certified letter to Wayne’s home stating that they were investigating him. In North Carolina, practicing without a license can result in criminal misdemeanor charges.

“It’s absurd that I spent decades practicing as an engineer but now can’t speak about engineering without a state license,” said Wayne. “Just as any other American, I have a right to speak out when I see something that is wrong. The Board should not be able to silence me, or anyone else, when stating an opinion. And, in my case, an opinion I can back up with my knowledge of engineering and my years of experience.”

Wayne is not the only North Carolinian to be subject to the Board’s expansive definition of what requires a license. Earlier this year, Michael Jones, a Goldsboro photographer, sued the same board after it threatened him for selling photographs and maps he made using his drone. Just like Wayne’s opinions (which were not being used to submit engineering plans to the state), Michael’s photos were simply informational.

The lawsuit filed today makes a straightforward legal argument: That talking about engineering is speech and the government cannot make it illegal to speak on certain topics without a license. By some estimates, 80% of engineers nationwide work legally without a license. By the Board’s interpretation, most engineers in North Carolina could not legally comment publicly on engineering.

“In this country, we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to rather than relying on the government to decide who gets to speak,” said IJ Attorney Joe Gay. “North Carolina’s engineering board is getting that important principle exactly backwards.”

The Institute for Justice defends First Amendment rights nationwide. IJ successfully defended an Oregon engineer charged by his state’s board with unlicensed practice for commenting on the timing of traffic lights. That engineer’s recommendations were adopted by the Institute of Transportation Engineers in 2020. Also in 2020, IJ won a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Mississippi mapping company that was charged by the state’s surveying board with unlicensed practice. IJ also recently won appeals court decisions in free speech cases on behalf of a veterinarian in Texas and tour guides in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Occupational licensing boards are the new censors in America, and they wield their power aggressively,” said IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock. “As occupational-licensing laws take up more and more space in the American economy, it is more important than ever that courts be vigilant to prevent them from taking over the First Amendment as well.”

 


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