Minnesota engineering board faces First Amendment lawsuit over the use of the word "engineer"

Cal Jeffrey

Posts: 3,498   +1,046
Staff member
In brief: An engineer has filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota licensing board for taking retaliatory disciplinary action against him after he referred to himself as a "professional engineer." The lawsuit claims that the Board violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

Correction (5/25/21): A spokesperson informed TechSpot that the Minnesota Board of Licensure has not issued an official statement on whether or not Marohn can use the term "professional engineer" now that his license is renewed. Instead, the Board is trying to discredit his word as a reformer, by labeling him a fraud.

"They are using the lapse in his license as an opportunity to enact disproportionate disciplinary action, labelling Marohn as a fraud in order to discredit his reform work," the spokesperson said.

We apologize for any confusion this mistake may have caused.

Charles Marohn is the founder of the engineering reform group Strong Towns. While he has not practiced his profession since 2012, he remains licensed in Minnesota. His focus these days is to reform the industry's outdated practices and "dogma." He has lectured and published papers critical of the industry's current standards.

In March of last year, an engineer in South Dakota, where Marohn had spoken several times, filed a complaint against him with the Minnesota Board of Licensure. The filing noted that in certain speeches and writings, Marohn referred to himself as a "professional engineer" during a lapse in his license.

The Board sat on the complaint for several months without notifying him. During that time, Marohn realized his license had lapsed and renewed it. Six weeks later, the licensing Board finally approached him about practicing without a license. He proved that he had not engaged in any engineering work, nor had he signed any papers requiring licensure during the lapse, but the Board didn't let it go.

Without a legal avenue to censure Marohn for practicing without a license, the Board turned its attention to his use of the term "professional engineer." They contend that he cannot describe himself as such in his work as a reformer even though he is licensed. The Board told Marohn that he must sign a stipulation order admitting that he engaged in "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation." If he refused, he would face disciplinary action. He filed a lawsuit instead.

"Engineers need to be able to speak their conscience without having their license and their livelihood threatened," Marohn said in a statement. "The Board's actions are an injustice to all Minnesotans and, if left unchallenged, will have a chilling effect on speech within the engineering profession,"

Marohn's case is not the first time we have seen a state licensing board take action against someone's use of the word engineer. Mats Järlström faced similar fines and injunctions in Oregon in 2017. He filed suit against the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying for freedom of speech violations. In 2019, a federal judge ruled that the Board had a "history of overzealous enforcement actions" and called its restrictions on the use of the word engineer "substantially overbroad in violation of the First Amendment."

Image credit: Strong Towns

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VitalyT

Posts: 6,232   +6,762
You need a special license to be an engineer in USA? WTF?

In any civilized country, once you've graduated with a degree in engineering, that is it.
 

Hexic

Posts: 1,220   +1,905
TechSpot Elite
You need a special license to be an engineer in USA? WTF?

In any civilized country, once you've graduated with a degree in engineering, that is it.

Not a national rule - just a few states attempt to relish the title and then get smacked by a judge every time it goes to court; and they are falling one by one.

You don't need a license to be an engineer nationally, that is your degree. Just like anywhere else.
 

VitalyT

Posts: 6,232   +6,762
You couldn't be more wrong with this statement. There are licensing requirements throughout the world and requirements to use the term "engineer" in your profession.
Maybe in your imprisonment corner, but not in a civilized world. I have been an engineer for over 20 years, worked in many places in Europe, and never heard of such licensing nonsense.
 

psycros

Posts: 4,155   +5,801
None of this has anything to do with "woke-ness" lol

It would have been nice if the article had delved into some of the specific criticisms made by Marohn, but since you clearly didn't look into them yourself you really have no idea what you're talking about, do you? For your edification "wokeness" absolutely DOES play a part in this story.
 

stansfield

Posts: 103   +30
It would have been nice if the article had delved into some of the specific criticisms made by Marohn, but since you clearly didn't look into them yourself you really have no idea what you're talking about, do you? For your edification "wokeness" absolutely DOES play a part in this story.
 

waclark

Posts: 350   +238
That's some optional recognition nonsense. It is not by any means required to be an engineer, unlike one in the US apparently.
It's not optional in Europe or the US, for certain types of engineering jobs. I have worked as an engineer in the US for over 40 years and have never been licensed, but I'm not designing things like bridges, skyscrapers or power systems for public buildings. Anything that has a public safety aspect will almost always have a licensed engineer who will sign off on the design before it's ever implemented. There may be dozens of non-licensed engineers on the job but they are not signing off on the design.
 

B5S46M

Posts: 49   +67
Once you have your degree in engineering (in whatever field you studied), you are an engineer. And if you work as an engineer then you are a professional engineer.

That is not correct. You take the EIT exam after graduation, and then you need to work in the profession for 5 years (actually now 4) before you can take the PE exam. This is not necessarily needed for your field of work, but if you are signing legal documents certifying work, then you need to be a licensed PE. Civil Engineers employed by government agencies are typically PE certified.
 

VitalyT

Posts: 6,232   +6,762
It's all kind of a bunch of nonsense, IMO.

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Puiu

Posts: 5,552   +4,519
TechSpot Elite
That is not correct. You take the EIT exam after graduation, and then you need to work in the profession for 5 years (actually now 4) before you can take the PE exam. This is not necessarily needed for your field of work, but if you are signing legal documents certifying work, then you need to be a licensed PE. Civil Engineers employed by government agencies are typically PE certified.
It depends on exactly what type of engineer we are talking about, but most countries in europe just require you to have an engineering degree (aka you need to go to college, which does include actual work at some point in time before you graduate).
 

waclark

Posts: 350   +238
It depends on exactly what type of engineer we are talking about, but most countries in europe just require you to have an engineering degree (aka you need to go to college, which does include actual work at some point in time before you graduate).
As you say, it depends. I guarantee that any engineer working on civil projects like roads, bridges, buildings, power plants etc there will be at least 1 licensed engineer on that job who will legally sign his/her name to the work.

A degree doesn't make you an expert, not by a long shot. Just like going to medical school doesn't make you a "doctor". You do an internship and you get licensed to practice. A degree in law doesn't allow you to practice law, until you pass the Bar and that's only for the state you practice in. Licensed engineers is something done in many countries around the world.
 

Puiu

Posts: 5,552   +4,519
TechSpot Elite
As you say, it depends. I guarantee that any engineer working on civil projects like roads, bridges, buildings, power plants etc there will be at least 1 licensed engineer on that job who will legally sign his/her name to the work.

A degree doesn't make you an expert, not by a long shot. Just like going to medical school doesn't make you a "doctor". You do an internship and you get licensed to practice. A degree in law doesn't allow you to practice law, until you pass the Bar and that's only for the state you practice in. Licensed engineers is something done in many countries around the world.
Don't confuse expert with a job title, being an engineer doesn't mean that you are an "expert", just that you have the required studies (according to the laws in that country) to work as one.

Just like how I wasn't expert programmer because I studied it at college, but I could call myself a professional programmer.