EDITORIAL: Oregon goes after man who criticized traffic light timing

The Constitution gives Americans, among other things, the right to criticize the government. But too often that reality gets lost on those who wield the levers of power.

When Mats Järlström’s wife received a ticket from a red light camera in 2013, the Swedish-born electronics engineer and Oregon resident did a little research into how yellow lights are timed. According to his calculations, the yellow light cycle was too short, as the 1950s-era formula failed to take into account for the longer time drivers need to turn a corner, instead of going straight through an intersection.

According to the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, Mr. Järlström’s research prompted him and his wife to fight the ticket. It also led to him to begin writing and speaking publicly about how the timing of red light cameras can create unsafe driving conditions and unfair penalties for drivers who must slow down to turn.

Other people took notice of his research, too. The local media covered his story, he appeared on an episode of “60 Minutes,” and he was invited to present his findings at the annual meeting of Institute of Transportation Engineers last year.

Mr. Järlström also sent a letter to the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, asking for an opportunity to present his findings.

Instead of granting his request, however, the board fined Mr. Järlström $500, accusing him of violating a state law by speaking about engineering issues without a license.

Yes, you read that right.

“By providing the public with his traffic engineering calculations,” the board said, “Järlström engaged in the practice of engineering.” If Mr. Järlström didn’t cease with his criticisms, the board maintained, he could be subject to thousands of dollars in fines and up to one year in jail.

While Mr. Järlström paid the $500 fine, he is now suing the state in federal court. “Criticizing the government’s engineering isn’t a crime. It’s a constitutional right,” said Samuel Gedge of the Institute for Justice, which is representing Mr. Järlström. “You don’t need to be a licensed engineer to talk about traffic lights.”

As Reason pointed out in a recent article, Mr. Järlström earned a degree in electrical engineering from Sweden, worked as an airplane camera mechanic in that country’s air force, and, while he doesn’t have an engineering license from the state of Oregon, he has held a variety of technical jobs since immigrating to the United States in 1992.

Regardless of his background, this whole controversy is ludicrous. Mr. Järlström doesn’t need permission from the government to do math. Nor does he need permission to share his mathematical findings in an effort to defend himself. Oregon officials are making fools of themselves.

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