Piqued by the ticket, he worked out the physics of cars passing through an intersection and concluded that the current system for timing stoplights—devised more than 50 years ago—was in error; combined with traffic cameras, the result was tickets to drivers who hadn’t really committed an offense.
Math and physics are familiar to Jarlstrom. A native of Sweden, completed a four-year engineering course at a technical secondary school and one year of advanced training there. Since coming to the US, he has worked as a technical consultant who helps design audio systems. As a matter of free speech, it really doesn’t matter whether these calculations are the best thing since Einstein’s theory of general relativity or a bald-faced claim that pi equals 3.
As it happens, Jarlstrom’s calculations seem to have been pretty good. Alexei A. Maradudin, research professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine, was one of the original authors of the intersection-crossing paradigm. In a phone interview he said, “I’m pretty well convinced he’s right.”
Jarlstrom shared his engineering background, and his calculations, with a less sympathetic audience, however—his local city government. “They were laughing at me at city council meetings,” he recalled. He also submitted his calculations to the engineering board. The board instructed him to stop performing engineering work.
The Oregon state statute forbids anyone not registered with the Board from either “impl[ying] that the person is an engineer or a registered professional”; or “[a]ppl[ying] special knowledge of the mathematical, physical and engineering sciences to such professional services or creative work [or] testimony.” Because Jarlstrom was not licensed under Oregon law, he could apparently not 1) mention his own engineering training in public; 2) perform—perhaps even in his head—mathematical work like the traffic-stop calculations or 3) discuss his results with his local government—or anyone else.
Jarlstrom had written about his work to his local sheriff, to Dr. Maradudin, and to 60 Minutes about his calculations. The board considered each of these a violation. It assessed a $500 fine.
In the words of President Trump, WRONG! Any citizen has a right to describe his or her own educational background, as long as he or she doesn’t perform or offer professional services without a license. (I’m a lawyer by training and I have the right to say so; I can’t claim bar membership if I don’t have it.) The First Amendment doesn’t have a Calculate Clause, but Jarlstrom’s math was fully protected as well. Finally, any citizen also has a right to criticize government operations, either to government itself or to the public and news media.
In fact, the Supreme Court recently held that even false public speech about a person’s background or experience can’t be punished unless it’s actually fraudulent. In 2012, the court voided the conviction of a blowhard who falsely told a public meeting that he was a veteran and a Medal of Honor winner. “Where false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable considerations,” the court said, “it is well established that the Government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment.” But falsity by itself cannot be punished “absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage.” For good measure, Kennedy added, “Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania's Ministry of Truth.”