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Oregon punished an engineer for criticizing red-light cameras. He fought back and won.

Mats Järlström points to a red-light camera. (Institute for Justice)

Mats Järlström is, by all accounts, an engineer. He graduated from engineering school in Sweden, served as an airplane-camera mechanic in the Swedish Air Force and worked in research and development at an electronics manufacturer. For the past 20 years, he has earned a living designing and repairing audio equipment.

He is not, however, a “licensed professional” in the state of Oregon, where he put down roots in the early 1990s. So when Järlström did his own study of the timing mechanisms in the state’s red-light cameras and found them flawed, Oregon officials hit him with a $500 fine for “unlicensed practice of engineering.”

Järlström was inspired by the $150 ticket his wife got in the mail in May after driving through an intersection with a red-light camera in Beaverton, Ore. His research showed that the mathematical formula used in the timing of yellow lights was outdated and unfair to drivers.

Mats Järlström presented research to Oregon state officials saying the red-light cameras in his area were flawed. (Video: Institute for Justice)

When he presented his findings to state officials and local media, the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying tried to silence him. A nearly two-year investigation by the board found he had violated a state law that says only state-licensed engineers can speak publicly about technical matters. Järlström, in turn, filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of his First Amendment rights.

This week, more than four years after his wife’s ticket, Järlström got some long-awaited relief. On Monday, Oregon’s attorney general conceded that the engineering board had trampled on his free speech rights, the Oregonian reported.

“We have admitted to violating Mr. Järlström’s rights,” Christina L. Beatty-Walters, senior assistant attorney general, told a federal magistrate judge in Portland, according to the Oregonian. The state’s action against Järlström under the state’s Professional Engineer Registration Act “was not narrowly tailored to any compelling state interests,” she added in court filings.

As long as Järlström doesn’t act in a commercial or professional manner, he is free to speak out about red-light cameras without fear of punishment, state attorneys said.

The state has already cut a check to Järlström for $500, but the traffic-camera saga is not over. Oregon wants the lawsuit thrown out, but Järlström and his attorneys from the Institute for Justice want the law itself declared unconstitutional. They say others have been improperly investigated and fined for protected speech.

“The existence of these laws and the way they’ve been applied time and time again has violated free speech rights,” attorney Samuel Gedge told the court, according to the Oregonian. “Past history suggests the board can’t be trusted on how the laws should be applied constitutionally.”

In one case cited by Järlström’s attorneys, a Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman was investigated after a voter’s pamphlet described his background as an “environmental engineer.” Like Järlström, he had studied engineering but lacked state-issued bona fides. In another case, the state board used the law to fine a local activist $1,000 for criticizing a proposed new power plant, as Reason reported.

Järlström’s interest in traffic cameras has grown into a passion. He says the original formula for calculating the duration of yellow lights dates back to the 1950s and only accounts for cars driving in straight lines. Cars in turning lanes need more time to slow down and make a legal right-hand turn, he says.

“Anyone should be able to talk about the traffic signals if they’re too long or too short or anything without being penalized,” Järlström said in an Institute for Justice video earlier this year.

The first patented electric traffic signal went into operation 100 years ago. PostTV looks into how a modern traffic signal system keeps traffic flowing—or not—in a busy city like Washington, D.C. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

After researching the issue in his spare time, he sought to publicize his findings. He corresponded with one of the physicists who worked on the original yellow-light formula. He spoke at a transportation conference in Los Angeles. And he shared his work with media outlets, including “60 Minutes.”

He also shared his ideas with the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. That’s what got him in trouble.

The board said Järlström was breaking the law and ordered him to “stop any further references” to his work until he registered as an engineer, his lawsuit says. He continued to publicize his work, and even shared a mathematical formula he believed would improve the timing of yellow lights.

In early 2015, the board opened a “law enforcement case” against him, according to his lawsuit. In talking about his traffic-light theories, the board found, he had indicated he was a licensed engineer, violating state law. He paid the $500 fine in late 2016.

“I stated that I was a Swedish electronics engineer, but I based all the things from freedom of speech,” Järlström said in the Institute for Justice video. “I was just talking. That’s literally what I did.”

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