An April 2012court decisionin the Cook County, Illinois, circuit court provides insight regarding the challenges of protecting the use of the title “engineer.” This was a litigated case regarding disputed payment of a $350 invoice (!!) for engineering services from an unlicensed engineer to a manufacturer. The court decision hinged in part on whether an unlicensed engineer could call and advertise himself as an engineer in the context of Illinois’ engineering statute and its exemption for manufacturing businesses. This decision applies only in Illinois but provides insight on some of the legal concepts inherent in protecting the title engineer.
Current Illinois law precludes anyone who does not have an Illinois PE license from advertising as a professional engineer or using the term P.E., or advertising or displaying any sign or card that might indicate to the public that the person or entity is entitled to practice as a professional engineer. There are significant penalties that can be imposed on violators. In this court decision, these limitations were deemed to apply to “commercial speech,” and were deemed constitutional.
The Illinois law goes on to define as a Class A Misdemeanor, or a Class 4 Felony for a subsequent offense, any “use of the title engineer or any of its derivations unless such person holds an active license as a professional engineer in the state of Illinois.” The defendant in this case argued that more than 75% of those educated as engineers in Illinois are not PEs, and that this provision infringed on the First Amendment right of free speech. The Cook County Circuit Court decided that the language in Illinois law precluding “the use of the title engineer or any of its derivations” was overly broad and unconstitutional under the First Amendment, in accordance with a constitutional legal concept called the “overbreadth doctrine.” In its decision, the court used strong words, indicating “there is no doubt…”
The engineering profession likely has a good shot in our legal system at protecting the titles “professional engineer” or “P.E.”. Protecting the title “engineer” from use by non-PEs, however, appears to be an uphill climb on a slippery slope.
This posting has been reviewed by L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE, Bernard R. Berson, P.E., P.L.S., F.NSPE, and NSPE General Counsel Arthur Schwartz.
Published May 30, 2012 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.