Oregon in free speech trouble?

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Mats Jarlström (right) at a press conference, June 21, 2019. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — After first admitting it violated a Beaverton man’s 1st Amendment rights, the state of Oregon will now have to prove it isn’t also violating other people’s free-speech protections.

United States Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman’s decision came down on the side of a Mats Jarlstrom, who says the state can’t regulate who calls themselves an engineer. The judge’s order means he has the right to continue his lawsuit on behalf of others who have been sanctioned by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineers and Land Surveying.

The case stems from Jarlstrom’s efforts to prove the City of Beaverton’s red light cameras are flawed, especially when it comes to people making right and left hand turns.

Ten days ago, the Attorney General for Oregon admitted the state violated Jarlstrom’s first amendment right to free speech in the case it calls “rare” and “unusual” in court filings. The state  conceded the violation as it hoped to make Järlström’s federal lawsuit go away, but the Beaverton electronics expert wants to continue his suit on behalf of others like him.

The state fined Jarlstrom $500 for the “unlicensed practice of engineering” in his efforts to prove red light cameras are setting drivers up for tickets they can’t avoid.  Järlström has a degree in electrical engineering, but like most people practicing engineering in the United States, he does not have a state engineering license, and he says clients at his electronics business don’t require or even care if he’s licensed.

His frustration was felt all the way in Washington D.C. where the Institute for Justice, which fights for peoples’ constitutional rights, decided to back him.

The group filed a federal lawsuit, arguing the State of Oregon can’t own the word engineer and “to vindicate the right of Plaintiff Mats Järlström to talk and write freely without fear of government punishment.”

Järlström’s lawyers claim the government has no legitimate interest in restricting who can talk about or critique engineering principles.

At the December 4th  hearing, the Attorney General’s Office argued the state has a critical interest in regulating who calls themselves an engineer, to ensure things like bridges and buildings are built correctly. Christina Beatty-Walters of the AG’s Office said Järlström should be free to talk about his red light camera theories as long as he is not paid to do it, or shares his information in “professional” and “commercial” speech. Judge Stacie Beckerman expressed concerns during the hearing in downtown Portland about how those terms could possibly be defined and differentiated from free speech.

Järlström’s lawyers told the judge he has the right to continue his lawsuit, so other people practicing engineering without a license can continue their work without fear of being punished by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineers and Land Surveying. Today, the judge agreed. She explained she can’t determine at this point whether Jarlstrom’s case should just be limited to his circumstances.

The State already refunded Järlström the $500 fine, but his lawsuit can now proceed towards a civil trial.

One of the other people facing similar discipline from the state is former Oregon gubernatorial candidate Allen Alley. The state has a pending case against the Republican for using the “e” word in a campaign ad without passing the state’s licensing test.

“Fundamentally, I think it’s wrong that people like me and Mats are going through this when we haven’t really claimed anything that we’re not.” Alley said after attending Järlström’s court hearing. “I have a degree from Purdue. I’ve practiced at Ford and Boeing, I’ve run engineering companies. I’ve won awards for being an engineer. I didn’t say I was a licensed professional engineer.”

According to the National Council of Examiners of Engineering and Surveying, there were 481,717 licensed engineers in the U.S. in 2016. But the National Society of Professional Engineers estimates about 2 million people are practicing engineering.

Many engineering professors aren’t required to be licensed engineers. At Oregon State University, only 13 of 45 faculty members in the Civil and Construction Engineering department have their engineering licenses. The university encourages but does not require their faculty members to become licensed engineers.

“The number drops dramatically outside that department because it’s not as critical to their success,” Scott Ashford, Dean of the OSU College of Engineering, said.

The Institute for Justice is representing Järlström for free, and they’re not seeking any monetary damages. Järlström says this is all about principles.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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