Groups call the law “Un-American,” “trampling free speech and other fundamental constitutional rights”

Five quite different groups have gone to federal court in Wyoming seeking to overturn Wyoming’s new law making it a crime for citizens to gather data on public land with the intent to give the data to the state or the federal government if they first cross private land to get there.

Western Watersheds Project, National Press Photographers Association, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Center for Food Safety are the plaintiffs hoping to do with Wyoming’s law what a another diverse group saw recently with Idaho’s ag gag law.

The debate during passage of the bill into law in the Wyoming legislature last spring showed the law was a direct response to Western Watersheds Project (WWP) collecting data on livestock contamination of public land and creeks. Data from WWP had already led to Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality to classify three streams as degraded.

Western Watersheds calls the law passed to stop this data gathering, and apparently all other kinds data collection by private initiative, a “data censorship law” or “Jonathan’s Law.” The later is after previously indefatigable Jonathan Ratner of WWP who has been alleged in a lawsuit to trespass in order to gather water quality data. Plaintiffs contend the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s “Petition Clause” by prohibiting citizens from communicating with their government on certain subjects and also on the viewpoint expressed.

The suit also contends the law “singles out for punishment groups whose views the Legislature dislikes.” This “violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The law also violates the “Supremacy Clause” of the Constitution say the plaintiffs. The Clean Water Act specifically authorises citizens bringing data on violations of water quality.

Plaintiffs expressed strong opinions about the need to sue over this law. “The rules represent a galling assault on our freedom of speech and citizen’s rights to protect their health and environment. That’s downright un-American,” said Michael Wall, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

National Press Photographers Association President Mark Dolan said, “NPPA members often photograph and record open land in Wyoming, whether documenting the environment, wildlife, weather emergencies, or to simply document and share the grandeur of that great state. The state of Wyoming has unjustifiably put photojournalists at risk of civil suit and criminal prosecution for this important work, and more importantly, they have jeopardized the public’s right to receive the information and images photojournalists provide them. NPPA decries the laws’ blatant violation of constitutionally-protected freedoms of the press that are the hallmark of this nation.”

“Time after time, PETA’s exposés have helped law-enforcement agencies take action against the very type of illegal cruelty to animals that Wyoming’s rules will help to conceal,” says PETA Foundation General Counsel Jeff Kerr.  

“Across most of the country people are told, ‘if you see something, say something.’ In Wyoming, these laws completely flip that script making it illegal to share information about environmental or food safety problems the public might observe,” said Cristina Stella, staff attorney at Center for Food Safety.

“It’s clear that Wyoming’s agricultural industry looking for a way to silence its critics, and the state legislature went along with the plan” said Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “It’s a shame that Wyoming’s government cares less about upholding the rights of all of its citizens to clean water and clean air and more about the livestock sector’s ‘right’ to secretly pollute and impair our natural resources.”

Representing the groups are the following attorneys: Justin R. Pidot, a law professor at the University of Denver (counsel for Western Watersheds Project and National Press Photographers Association); Reed Zars; Michael Wall and Margaret Hsieh (counsel for NRDC); Deepak Gupta, Gupta Wessler PLLC (counsel for National Press Photographers Association), Leslie Brueckner, Public Justice (counsel for Western Watersheds Project), Matthew Strugar (counsel for PETA), Paige Tomaselli and Cristina Stella (counsel for Center for Food Safety), Justin Marceau, of counsel at Animal Legal Defense Fund and law professor at the University of Denver (counsel for Western Watersheds Project and National Press Photographers Association).

Here is a link to the lawsuit.

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

7 Responses to Wyoming’s data trespass law unconstitutional? Question goes to federal court

  1. avatar Karen says:

    Thank you sir, for the informative articles, and for having the courage to write these great articles. We as citizens do need to know, and you are doing a great service for our wildlife and public lands. Thank you

  2. avatar Kent Nelson says:

    Wyoming Wildlife Advocates strongly supports Western Watersheds and their co-plaintiffs and wish them success. We think the law they are fighting is wrong-headed, un-American and so clearly unconstitutional that it amounts to a form of corruption. We hope the judge sees fit to make WWP whole for the financial costs they have had to incur and adds a substantial amount for damages. This whole episode has been a dismal example of special interest politics.
    -Kent Nelson, executive director, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates

  3. avatar OregonCoast says:

    Well where… are all the Oathkeepers now? Big bad government stepping on the Constitution & not a peep from them. This must be a mistake, someone ought to let them know right away.

  4. avatar JoshatNRDC says:

    Thanks for covering Ralph. The assumption that folks are not watching is part of what fuels legislation like this…

  5. avatar Kyle Gardner says:

    With the Idaho “ag-gag” appropriately nullified, we should expect the same to happen to other ALEC-inspired legislation wherever it has been passed into law. Instead of accepting responsibility for their behavior, industry and its minions in government would prefer that all information is simply swept under the rug, ignored and suppressed. “Nothing to see here folks.” Such efforts cover ups may work for a while, but once exposed should be swept away for the unconstitutional and unethical nonsense they truly are.

    Thanks for the article Ralph.

  6. avatar monty says:

    “Wyoming’s Data Trespass Law” is socialism where profits are privatized and costs passed on to the public. I thought that “Cowboys” hate socialism!.

  7. avatar Cody Coyote says:

    I fully expected this lawsuit, nd expect the plaintiffs to prevail on the issues Ralph points out.

    What I did NOT know till know was that Western Watersheds / Ratner had previously and successfully managed to get Wyoming DEQ to recategorize three streams as ” degraded”. That certainly must’ve chaffed the Stetson crowd here in Wyoming and expedited the gestation of this defective legislation last winter.

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