A free speech victory in Illinois

A free speech victory in Illinois

In July of 2009, I wrote a piece at Gaper's Block that detailed the strange case of Burton Siegal of Skokie, a man being sued simply for using a word.

Siegal–a practicing engineer who once designed a device installed onto a NASA moon lander–was sued by a former customer who alleged Siegel and his company, Budd Engineering, violated the Illinois Professional Engineering Services Act by using the word "engineering" in his firm's name.

Not only that, but the act also requires that only engineers who have passed an exam may use the word "engineer" or derivations or abbreviations of it on business cards or in the phone book. Under this act, a person who obtained a degree in engineering–as Burton Siegal did from the University of Illinois–may not even legally use the word "engineer" on his resumé. The first offense of this act is a misdemeanor, and the second is a felony that provides for the possibility of jail time.

In essence, someone could be fined, imprisoned, and prevented from earning a livelihood just for using a single word.

During the course of the lawsuit, Siegal and his attorneys Anthony Sanders and Cris Lord challenged the act for overbreath. They argued it not only regulates the lawful use of a word in commercial speech, but also in general, non-commercial speech such as, for example, a resumé.

Siegal's attorneys argued the act violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech, and, last Monday, the court agreed.

On April 30th, 2012, Judge Joan E. Powell of the Circuit Court of Cook County ruled not only that Burton Seigal may continue to call himself an engineer, but also that provisions of the Illinois Professional Engineering Services Act that related to the use of the word "engineer" are overly broad and, therefore, unconstitutional. You may download the court's full decision here.

"Titling laws" such as this act have been used increasingly in recent decades to abridge the right to free speech by providing strict guidelines on who may use certain words. For example, regulations in at least four states regulate the use of the term "interior designer" so that only those licensed by the American Society of Interior Designers may use it lawfully.

Pieces of legislation such as the Illinois Professional Engineering Services Act are passed under the noblest of purposes: to protect the public from fraudsters and charlatans. But they, like any legislation, may be hijacked by powerful special interests to freeze competitors out of the market and increase consumer prices. The process of permitting special interests to use legislation for their own benefit is called "regulatory capture."

But regulatory capture is not the only reason to be suspicious of titling laws. Attorney Anthony Sanders explains that this decision has wider implications for the notion of free speech.

"The impact of this decision is to say government cannot expropriate common words used by all English speakers and give them to a politically-connected minority," says Sanders.

The moment the courts agree with legislatures that certain words are off-limits or restricted to certain classes of people is the moment we stop being free.

Thanks to this decision, that moment has yet to arrive.

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