Red Lights, Free Speech and Occupational Licensing

Red Lights, Free Speech and Occupational Licensing

Here’s an interesting story about the silliness of some occupational licensing boards.

A man trained in electrical engineering, questions the formulas used for timing red lights in Oregon, after his wife gets a ticket for moving through the intersection to make a right turn on a yellow (the light turned red while she was turning). He develops a new formula. And here’s where it gets interesting:

Mats’s work was generally met with interest, but when he e-mailed the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, things took an abrupt illegal U-turn. The Board told Mats it had no interest in hearing about his ideas. Fair enough. But the Board didn’t stop there. After a two-year investigation, it fined him $500 for publicly criticizing the timing of traffic lights without having a Professional Engineer license. The Board also forbid him from continuing to discuss his research.

Fortunately, our friends at the Institute for Justice stepped in to lend assistance and they gained an injunction to stop the Board from enforcing, on First Amendment grounds, and Mats continued both his research and speaking about it.

“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to speak regardless of whether they are right or wrong,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represented Mats. “But in Mats’s case, the ITE committee’s decision suggests that he not only has a right to speak, but also, that he was right all along.”

This is a fine example of how occupational licensing boards can be very flawed. The boards–typically made up in large part of practitioners in the field–are often motivated not by public health and safety interest, but by self-interest which is manifested in limiting who can not only practice the occupation but also who can express ideas related to their expertise. The “health, safety and welfare of the public” language that is often used when they oppose loosening regulations is the same language that they use when they wish to further limit who might be licensed.

But one has to question their motives when we see a case like this one. Mr. Mats was expressing ideas and opinions based on his background and research; he wasn’t re-programming the lights.

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