Wayne Nutt, a retired engineer in North Carolina, just wanted to help out his neighbors. After he testified about a piping system that allegedly flooded homes, the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors sent him a letter claiming he’d broken the law. The crime? Practicing engineering without a license.
Now, he’s suing the state on First Amendment grounds.
When his son, a lawyer, started working on a case involving homes that flooded following Hurricane Florence, Nutt volunteered to be an expert witness. “I have all my handbooks,” Nutt told Motherboard on the phone. “I can tell you what the capacity of the pipe was when it was in new condition…I can show you how obstructions would have reduced flow capacity. I wrote a report.”
Nutt is a retired engineer who worked for DuPont for years. He has a degree in engineering from the University of Iowa and retired in 2013. He was never a state licensed engineer because, in North Carolina, he operated under a “industrial exemption” while working for DuPont. Nutt’s particular expertise was in pipes and piping.
The lawyers working the case hired a licensed engineer to look over Nutt’s work and approve it, which they did. Then Nutt went to court for a deposition where he talked through the report. During the process, the defense attorney noted that Nutt wasn’t a licensed engineer and shouldn’t be allowed to speak about the piping issue, regardless of his bonafides. “They had someone turn me in to the state board,” Nutt said.
In North Carolina, it’s illegal to practice engineering without a license. What, exactly, constitutes “engineering” is pretty broad. According to North Carolina, it includes giving expert testimony during a court case. In the deposition, Nutt clearly stated he was a retired engineer unlicensed in the state, but that didn’t matter. “I'm potentially to be charged with a class 2 misdemeanor,” Nutt said. “Which could be a fine of up to $1,000 and 60 days in jail.”
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2014, Mats Järlström—an electrical engineer living in Oregon—was fined $500 when he wrote “I am an engineer” in a letter to the government. Järlström was trying to help fix the traffic lights in his town. Years later, a formal study of the problem vindicated Järlström and the city adopted his plan to fix it.
A non-profit law firm called the Institute for Justice helped Järlström navigate the fallout of practicing engineering without a license. Now it’s helping Nutt. “Occupational licensing boards are the new censors in this country and they are wielding their power with extraordinary energy,” Robert McNamara, Senior Attorney at the Institute of Justice, told Motherboard on the phone.”The central idea of this case is the radical proposition that talking about engineering is just that—it's talking.”
“The North Carolina engineering board, like other licensing boards all across the country, seems to disagree,” he said. “It seems to think that some magical property of Wayne's speech takes it outside of the First Amendment's protection. But the First Amendment means that we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to. We do not rely on the government to decide who's going to get to speak. North Carolina is getting that important principle exactly backwards and we're more than happy to step in to correct them.”
Nutt said that the experience is changing the way he communicates.
“I’ve always been careful to say, ‘I’m an engineer by training, I’m retired,’” he said. “I’ve never claimed to be a licensed professional engineer. I always felt like, if you limit yourself to the truth you won’t get into trouble. I guess what I’ve learned is that, in the state of North Carolina, you can tell the truth and still be in a lot of trouble.”