In September 2014, Mats Järlström, an electronics engineer living in Beaverton, Oregon, sent an email to the state's engineering board. The email claimed that yellow traffic lights don't last long enough, which "puts the public at risk."
"I would like to present these facts for your review and comments," he wrote.
This email resulted not with a meeting, but with a threat. The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying responded with this dystopian message:
"ORS 672.020(1) prohibits the practice of engineering in Oregon without registration … at a minimum, your use of the title 'electronics engineer' and the statement 'I'm an engineer' … create violations."
In January of this year, Järlström was officially fined $500 by the state for the crime of "practicing engineering without being registered."
It started in 2013, when Järlström's wife was caught running a red light by a camera near their home. Järlström spent a year looking into the timing of yellow lights and red light camera statistics, and learned that cameras were catching people who were running yellow lights.
The original paper that determined yellow light timing, written in 1959, is too simplistic for the modern world, he said. And yet the original calculations in them are still used all around the world.
"They only looked at a vehicle traveling safely directly through an intersection, however the equation they developed is not used for turning lanes," Järlström told me. "When you make a turn you slow down but that's not accounted for in their solution, so people are getting caught in red light cameras for making safe turns."
Järlström, understandably, wanted to get feedback on his findings. And so he reached out to the engineering board, his local sheriff, and 60 Minutes. He was even invited to give a talk about his research in front of the Institute of Transportation Engineers in Anaheim, California. He also spoke to Alexei Maradudin, the last surviving author of that 1959 paper: "He wants me to continue with this, it's amazing that I have his support," Järlström said.
To be clear, Järlström is doing this work in his free time, for free, and does not have any control over the red lights in Oregon or anywhere else. In 2014, he sued the City of Beaverton over the length of its yellow light lengths, but that case was quickly thrown out because a judge said he lacked standing to challenge it because "for purposes of standing, Plaintiff must allege that the short yellow-light intervals create a credible threat of imminent injury to him."
"I'm not practicing engineering, I'm just using basic mathematics and physics, Newtonian laws of motion, to make calculations and talk about what I found," Järlström said.
And yet, the engineering board in Oregon says he should not be free to publish or present his ideas. Tuesday, Järlström and the Institute for Justice sued the engineering board in federal court for Violating his First Amendment rights.
"Mats has a clear First Amendment right to talk about anything from taxes to traffic rights," Sam Gedge, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, told me. "It's an instance of a licensing board trying to suppress speech."
Järlström, for his part, said he never expected anything like this to happen when he moved to the United States from Sweden 20 years ago.
"When I got the first letter, it was this feeling of being violated and shocked that someone can be treated like this in the USA for sharing their ideas," he said. "I've done this freely, self-funded, as a civil service. I want to show these ideas to the public and I'm getting surpassed. It's been a civil rights violation since day one."