Joe Cunningham (copy)

A state regulatory board has dismissed complaints lodged against U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, for calling himself an ocean engineer in 2018 campaign ads. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Looks like it's political free speech in South Carolina to call yourself an ocean engineer even when you aren't working as one.  

In an overriding example of First Amendment protection, Charleston's recently elected Democratic congressman, Joe Cunningham, can continue calling himself an ocean engineer.

The state agency responsible for regulating professional licenses has dismissed multiple complaints against Cunningham for his use of the term "ocean engineer" in his 2018 political ads and campaign materials.

According to an email obtained by The Post and Courier, the S.C. Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Surveyors declined to pursue disciplinary action or formal charges.

The recommendation to disregard the objections came from investigators at the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, according to the email from LLR attorney Donnell Jennings.

LLR spokeswoman Lesia Kudelka declined to comment, citing state law that imposes a confidentiality requirement on board proceedings. While final board decisions are posted publicly, Kudelka said dismissals and private reprimands are not.

Cunningham does not have a professional engineers license in South Carolina, and never obtained one when he moved to the Palmetto State in 2014.

What Cunningham does have, according to his lawyer Jim Griffin, is constitutional protection.

"The basis for their decision not to go forward with any of it is that all of this was political speech," said Griffin, a Columbia attorney who has represented licensing disputes for health care professionals in the state.

"In this case, the term was being used in a noncommercial matter," Griffin said. "He was running for office."

Cunningham's use of the engineering label isn't unique and was recently debated in court. In December, a federal magistrate judge in Oregon ruled a man who held a degree in engineering from Sweden could call himself an engineer after the state's licensing board fined him for doing so after citing his lack of a professional engineer license in Oregon.

"Unlike 'M.D.' or 'certified public accountant,' there is no fixed meaning to the title 'engineer,'" U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman wrote in her 25-page written ruling.

She continued, "Courts have long recognized that the term 'engineer' has a generic meaning separate from 'professional engineer,' and that the term has enjoyed 'widespread usage in job titles in our society to describe positions which require no professional training.'"

Griffin cited that case ruling as being pivotal in LLR's decision not to pursue further investigation.

In one of his TV ads, Cunningham invoked his experience as an ocean engineer while treading water in a wet suit. 

"As an ocean engineer, I've spent a lot of time on the water and in it. And I’ve always opposed offshore drilling,” Cunningham said in the 30-second TV spot.

The claim drew ire from James Island engineer Keane Steele, who filed one of the complaints against Cunningham. Repeated attempts to reach Steele for comment by phone and email about the LLR's decision to dismiss the complaints were unsuccessful.

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Cunningham told The Post and Courier he was glad the matter has been settled.

"Politics can be incredibly petty and these frivolous complaints were just that," he said. "The people of the Lowcountry are tired of political stunts from their leaders, and I'm glad voters chose not to fall for this one."

Political speech historically has been constitutionally protected against challenges under the First Amendment, and gives candidates broad protections about what they can say while running for office. In 2014, federal courts struck down an Ohio law that banned lying in political campaigns and gave the Ohio Elections Commission the power to determine whether disputed claims were true or false.

"There is no clear way to determine whether a political statement is a lie or the truth, and we certainly do not want the government deciding what is political truth," U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black wrote in his ruling on the case.

As for candidates inflating parts of their resume while downplaying others, that's just politics.

"Candidates have always pushed the envelope in any way that increases their appeal among voters," said Jeri Cabot, College of Charleston dean of Students, whose expertise includes South Carolina politics and the media.

"If you once had some training, what's wrong with saying you had that training?" Cabot continued, who then invoked her own resume to make her point.

She has a Ph.D. in political science but is now working in the college's Office of the Dean of Students.

"But it doesn't negate the training I've had," she said.

Before becoming an attorney in South Carolina, Cunningham was an engineer intern in Florida, as well as a project engineer. Cunningham also has a degree in ocean engineering from Florida Atlantic University.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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