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Federal court: Use of “engineer” label does not imply licensure status

The Oregon engineering board may not prohibit non-licensees from referring to themselves as “engineers,” a federal court ruled December 28, 2018 (Järlström v. Aldridge). The decision was in response to a suit brought by an unlicensed man who had been ordered by the board to stop referring to himself by that title as he urged the board to investigate the accuracy of red-light traffic cameras.

The judge in the case ruled that the term “engineer” is not exclusive to the licensing context, and the board thus had no authority to prohibit its general use.

Mat Järlström, the plaintiff in the case, is an Oregon resident, an electrical engineer by education, and works in electronics, but does not have an Oregon engineering license.

In 2013, he became interested in red-light-camera tickets after his wife received one, and began a course of research into the accuracy of the camera sensors and timing. He discovered that the method used to calculate the duration of a yellow light failed to account for drivers who must slow down to make a legal turn. Following this discovery, Järlström contacted Oregon’s engineering board, referring to himself as an engineer and asking for support in his work.

The request did not have the desired result. Far from sharing Järlström’s concern about the accuracy of red-light cameras, the board instead took issue with Järlström’s reference to himself as an engineer and advised him to stop referring to himself by that title. Unheeding, Järlström continued to reach out to share his discovery, both to engineering entities and the media, at times referring to himself as an engineer.

In 2015, the board opened an unlicensed practice case against Järlström, eventually finding him in violation of several Oregon laws—for both calling the camera timing into question and referring to himself as an engineer—and fining him $500.

Unhappy with this result, Järlström filed suit in federal district court against the board, claiming that its application of Oregon’s engineering practice laws violated his First Amendment rights to free speech. Seemingly contrite, the board returned the $500 to Järlström, but the case continued, with both parties filing for summary judgment.

While both Järlström and the Board agreed that the unlicensed practice laws were unconstitutionally applied in his specific case, Järlström also claimed that the language of both the state’s practice and title laws was so overbroad and violative of the First Amendment as to make them unconstitutional in all cases.

Järlström’s challenge of the two sets laws met with differing results. The court, citing U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment precedent, held that Järlström had not successfully shown that Oregon’s Practice laws presented “an unacceptable risk of the suppression of ideas,” and thus the court could not reach the question of speech suppression where a narrower ruling—the application of the laws to Järlström himself was unconstitutional—was available.

In Järlström’s case, the challenge to the state’s title laws differed; he claimed the application of the laws was unconstitutional for every person to which it could be applied, in that it prevented all instances of a person referring to themselves as an “engineer” unless that person was licensed by the state. Such a prohibition was unconstitutionally overbroad, Järlström argued, because the term “engineer” has legitimate applications outside the realm of professional licensing.

After noting that the title laws reached beyond restricting only commercial speech, Judge Stacie Beckerman held that “the Title laws threaten a substantial amount of protected activity,” agreeing with Järlström that the laws, as construed, prohibit any non-licensed person from referring to themselves as an “engineer.”

Judge Beckerman noted that the board had often targeted people who used the title “engineer” in non-commercial contexts, despite the fact that the use of the term by non-licensed people was not “inherently misleading. The word ‘engineer’ is different from the other title restrictions courts have upheld in the past because it means something different from “professional engineer, she said.

“Nothing in the record supports the conclusion that a reasonable person would assume that an individual who calls herself an ‘engineer’ is necessarily a registered professional engineer.”

To fix the problem, Judge Beckerman ordered that the term “engineer”—as distinguished from “professional engineer” or “registered engineer”—be stricken from the title laws, and ruled that Järlström could continue in his traffic camera quest and refer to himself in public as an engineer.