Culture Beat / May 9, 2017

Oregon and Speech Control

The state of Oregon fines a man for expressing an engineering opinion because he is not a state-licensed engineer.

An interesting story comes out of Oregon that highlights yet again the importance of protecting our First Amendment rights. Mats Jarlstrom immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden in 1992, where he had worked as an electronics engineer. Fast-forward to April 2013, when his wife received a ticket for having run a red light — an infraction caught by a traffic camera. While the Jarlstroms paid the fine, Mats had a question sparked by both curiosity and concerns over safety.

Jarlstrom decided to look into the formula created in 1959 used to calculate the length of time traffic lights lit up yellow before switching to red. Through his research he determined that the timeframe for yellow to red did not rightly account for the length of time needed for a car to slow down enough to safely navigate a right-hand turn at an intersection. Jarlstrom said, “Currently, people are getting tickets for running red lights because they’re slowing down when they’re making turns. It’s a safety issue because any time we run a red light, we’re in the intersection for the wrong reason, and there is cross traffic, and especially pedestrians are in danger.”

Jarlstrom decided to make his findings public. He shared them with local media, the sheriff’s department, policymakers and the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. What happened next was not anything Jarlstrom expected. The state board alerted him that they were opening up an investigation for his having used the title “electronics engineer” and his statement “I’m an engineer.” After two years, the board concluded its investigation and fined him $500. The reason given was that he was not a licensed engineer in the state of Oregon.

This episode exposes one of the dangers of government cronyism. Fining an individual for expressing an opinion on a subject merely because he does not have a state-authorized license violates freedom of speech. Moreover, Jarlstrom does indeed have an engineering degree, so it’s not as if he’s unfamiliar with the science. But even if he didn’t have that degree, what right does the government have to essentially punish someone for speaking their mind?

Sam Gedge, a lawyer from the Institute for Justice, has taken Jarlstrom’s case and is challenging the state board’s ruling. Gedge called the case a “classic First Amendment issue,” stating, “The government can’t punish people for expressing their concerns. The government can’t take words and redefine them and then punish people for using them in a way the government doesn’t like.”

Then again, Oregon is the state that fined the bakers who declined to cater a same-sex wedding. That bakery closed — silenced by the power of the state. In that context, a little red light dispute isn’t all that surprising.

(Edited.)

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