A federal district court has ruled that the state of Oregon illegally infringed on a man’s First Amendment rights for fining him $500 because he wrote “I am an engineer” in a 2014 email to the state’s Engineering Board. The court ruled that the provision in the law he broke is unconstitutional, which opens the door for people in the state to legally call themselves “engineers.”
This dystopian saga dates back to 2013, when Mats Järlström's wife, while driving, was caught by a red light camera near their home in Beaverton, Oregon. Rather than pay the red light camera fine, Järlström, an electrical engineer, spent months researching the specifics of yellow light timing and red light cameras, and learned that his wife had likely been ticketed for running a yellow light. Järlström began sharing his findings on his personal website, at conferences, and even got featured on 60 Minutes. He also wrote several emails to the Oregon Board of Engineers explaining what he had found. In the email, he noted that he was an “engineer.”
Rather than looking into whether traffic light timing should be changed, however, the board sent Järlström a warning—and then a $500 fine for the crime of “practicing engineering without being registered.” Järlström had violated one of Oregon’s “Title Laws,” which states that “no persons may … hold themselves out as an ‘engineer’” unless they are an “individual who is registered in this state and holds a valid certificate to practice engineering in this state.”
In other words, the only people in Oregon who could legally call themselves “engineers” in any context were people who were board certified professional engineers. Järlström has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and spent his career working in electronics, but wasn’t board certified. He sued the state’s engineering board and, last week, a US District Court judge for the District of Oregon ruled that the state’s law is unconstitutional.
“The statutes prohibit truthfully describing oneself as an ‘engineer,’ in any context. This restriction clearly controls and suppresses protected speech, and enforcement of the statute against protected speech is not a hypothetical threat,” the judge wrote, adding that Oregon’s board of engineers has a long “history of overzealous enforcement actions.”
Sam Gedge, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented Järlström in the case, found that the state’s engineering board had been fining and warning a whole host of people for using the word “engineer” in public settings.
"What are we going to do about these software guys that call themselves engineers? We gotta take down Dilbert!"
The law “has been deployed against people who use the word ‘engineer’ in voter pamphlets, ballot statements, business cards, e-mails, blogs, business names, corporate filings, websites, and even individual photographs on websites,” Gedge wrote in one of his legal briefs. “Recent targets have included politicians, activists, companies, schools, associations, and ordinary people like Järlström.”
Indeed, at a public meeting in February 2014, the Oregon board of engineering had a lengthy exchange about the fact that software engineers were illegally calling themselves “engineers,” and joked that the cartoon character Dilbert is not an engineer.
“What are we going to do about these software guys that call themselves engineers? We gotta take down Dilbert!,’” one member of the board said in audio acquired by Motherboard.
“I’m not sure if Dilbert’s licensed in the state of Oregon,” another member of the board responded.
The judge in the case, meanwhile, decided that the “software guys” can keep calling themselves engineers without worry: “The term ‘engineer,’ standing alone, is neither actually nor inherently misleading,” the judge wrote. “Courts have long recognized that the term ‘engineer’ has a generic meaning separate from ‘professional engineer’ and that the term has enjoyed “widespread usage in job titles in our society to describe positions which require no professional training.’”
The judge ordered that the word “engineer” be struck from Oregon’s law, which is “substantially overbroad in violation of the First Amendment” and specifically noted that “Järlström may describe himself publicly and privately using the word ‘engineer’” and that he may continue to talk about traffic light timing publicly.
Other states have similar laws on the books, which, in theory, exist to prevent random people from claiming to be an engineer and then advertising their services to, for example, build a bridge. The district court decision noted that the state has the authority to restrict the “practice” of professional engineering, but cannot restrict people from calling themselves an engineer. The judge noted that the law, as written, “treats the word ‘engineer’ as synonymous with ‘professional engineer’ and ‘registered professional engineer,’” but found that “there is no fixed meaning to the title ‘engineer.’ There are many different types of engineers.”
The distinction—and this court case—were particularly controversial online. After I first wrote about Järlström’s case in 2017, many readers and internet comment sections began discussing whether “software engineers” should be calling themselves “engineers” at all.
“The takeaway is that ‘engineer’ is a word that means a lot of things, which is why you have engineers who are the guys running locomotives and domestic engineers and sanitation engineers,” Gedge told me on the phone. “This has been an issue that has bubbled up over and over again over the last 50 years … this decision comes with the much needed benefit that people who are engineers can now take the unremarkable step of calling themselves an ‘engineer.’”