A Win for Free Speech—and the Environment

A federal court ruled that Wyoming’s “data trespass” laws are unconstitutional.

A photographer in Lamar Valley, Wyoming

Alamy

In a win for environmental advocacy and free speech rights, a federal district judge ruled on Monday that Wyoming’s “data trespass” laws—which punish those who gather data on public lands for the purposes of reporting illegal pollution or workplace safety issues—violate the First Amendment rig­ht to free speech.

“The state tried to criminalize environmental advocacy,” says Michael Wall, litigation director of NRDC, which had to cancel a multiyear air pollution study in Wyoming oil and gas fields due to increased risk of jail time and civil penalties from the state’s data trespass laws. “That's un-American. And as the federal court ruled, it's unconstitutional.” 

Before this ruling, which now permanently blocks Wyoming from applying the controversial laws, these data trespass rules threatened citizen scientists and whistleblowers with civil penalties and even jail time if they accidentally crossed any private land on their way to legally collect environmental data on public lands. Given Wyoming’s patchwork of unmarked public and private land boundaries, the laws effectively banned investigations into potential misconduct, like contaminating waterways or killing endangered wildlife.

In the past, such citizen investigations have found evidence of health code, environmental, and labor violations, and have improved protections for lands and wildlife. Wyoming’s data trespass restrictions are closely related to “ag gag” laws in other states, which penalize civilians for so much as taking a photo at industrial farms.

The case was brought by a coalition of nonprofit organizations, including NRDC, the Western Watersheds Project, and the National Press Photographers Association.

“Wyoming’s attempt to silence and intimidate citizens, advocates, and the media has now met the same demise as similar laws in Idaho and Utah, sending a clear message to industrial agriculture’s lobbyists that their dependence on secrecy to sell their product will not survive,” says David Muraskin, Food Project Attorney for Public Justice. “These laws are unjust and unconstitutional, and we’ll continue to fight them from coast to coast until they have all been defeated or repealed.”

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