A Win for Free Speech: Court Rules Wyoming’s Ag-Gag Law Unconstitutional

NRDC and a coalition of nonprofits challenged a state law criminalizing the collection of data on public land regarding environmental conditions or agricultural practices.

Yellowstone's Norris Geyser Basin, Wyoming

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The First Amendment protects the collection of environmental data on public lands, a federal appeals court held today, rejecting Wyoming's defense of its "data trespass" law. The so-called ag-gag law, modeled on similar laws in at least eight other states, silenced free speech by making it a punishable offense to collect data—including photos—on public land for the purposes of reporting illegal pollution or other violations. By effectively banning investigations into potential breaches of environmental laws, it prohibited private citizens from doing their part to hold polluters, employers, and corporations accountable.

“The Wyoming statute tried to cut science and freedom of speech out of government decision-making,” said Michael Wall, litigation director at NRDC. “In this moment where science and the free press are under attack, the federal court upheld the essential role of public participation and free speech in our democracy.”

NRDC and a diverse group of other nonprofits—the Western Watersheds Project, the National Press Photographers Association, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Center for Food Safety—filed the suit in federal court nearly two years ago. The data-censorship laws, signed by Wyoming’s governor, Matt Mead, in May 2015, had come about in direct response to Western Watersheds Project’s collection of water-quality data to highlight agricultural impacts to publicly owned land and streams in the state.

Today’s decision marks the third time in the past two years that a federal court has scrutinized such laws for violating the First Amendment. “This decision will rightly put one of the most egregiously un-American laws I have seen in recent years on the scrapheap with other censorship laws, where it belongs," Wall said.

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