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Groups Challenge Wyoming's 'Downright Un-American' Censorship Laws

State laws place citizen scientists and advocacy groups 'in jeopardy for acting to protect public health, the environment, and animal welfare'

"This kind of law might seem less shocking in North Korea," said Professor Justin Marceau with the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, who represents Western Watersheds Project and National Press Photographers Association. (Photo: USFWS/flickr/cc with overlay)

A coalition of advocacy groups filed suit in Wyoming on Tuesday, charging that the state's recently enacted "data trespass laws" are unconstitutional, undemocratic, and "downright un-American."

"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."
—Travis Bruner, Western Watersheds Project

The lawsuit (pdf) claims that a pair of Wyoming state laws, enacted this spring, stifle freedom of speech and make citizen science illegal in the state.

The "Data Censorship Statutes," as they are dubbed in the lawsuit, punish individuals who gather information—everything from water quality data to photographs to ground surveys—about land or resources and then communicate, or plan to communicate, that information to government agencies.

As attorney Justin Pidot, who will be representing the groups in court, wrote for Slate earlier this year:

The new law is of breathtaking scope. It makes it a crime to “collect resource data” from any “open land,” meaning any land outside of a city or town, whether it’s federal, state, or privately owned. The statute defines the word collect as any method to “preserve information in any form,” including taking a “photograph” so long as the person gathering that information intends to submit it to a federal or state agency. In other words, if you discover an environmental disaster in Wyoming, even one that poses an imminent threat to public health, you’re obliged, according to this law, to keep it to yourself.

"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), one of the groups involved in the lawsuit. The other organizations are the Western Watersheds Project, National Press Photographers Association, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and Center for Food Safety.

"The Wyoming Legislature was not coy about its purposes," the lawsuit states. "The Data Censorship Statutes were enacted after Wyoming livestock interests sued Western Watersheds Project, a plaintiff in this case, for allegedly trespassing while collecting water quality samples. Western Watersheds had collected data that revealed potentially unlawful water pollution and federal grazing permit violations, and had given that data to the government."

The impact of the laws, the suit continues, "is serious," placing advocacy groups and their members "in jeopardy for acting to protect public health, the environment, and animal welfare, as well as for informing public debate and governmental decision-making on issues of considerable public concern." Such issues, the lawsuit contends, include environmental degradation and misconduct, animal cruelty and abuse, and land use and misuse. 

"Plaintiffs wish to continue such data collection and public reporting," the lawsuit declares. "The Data Censorship Statutes are designed to deter them from doing so."

Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, added: "It's clear that Wyoming’s agricultural industry [is] looking for a way to silence its critics, and the state legislature went along with the plan. 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."

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