Judge questions Wyoming ban on open lands data collection

AP News
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Posted: Dec 29, 2015 7:44 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit contesting two new Wyoming laws barring people from gathering information about agriculture and other industries on private and public lands.

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl in Casper made the ruling Monday after questioning the constitutionality of the laws.

The Wyoming Legislature passed the two similar laws earlier this year. The measures specifically prohibit the taking of photos or gathering of other data while trespassing on open land.

A coalition of environmental, animal rights and other groups filed the suit, saying the laws try to prohibit gathering information used to challenge resource management decisions and expose animal cruelty.

Wyoming officials sought dismissal, arguing the groups lacked standing to challenge the laws. Nobody has been prosecuted under the laws yet.

Skavdahl allowed the case to go ahead, citing the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of free speech and equal protection under the law. He wrote that he has "serious concerns" about the constitutionality of the statutes.

Michael Wall, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a release, "A law that makes sharing photos of Devils Tower or Yellowstone a punishable offense just isn't consistent with Americans' right to free speech."

Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael declined to comment.

The Legislature passed the laws after a group of Wyoming ranchers and landowners sued a conservation group they said trespassed on private land to collect water-quality samples.

The groups suing — the NRDC, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Center for Food Safety, National Press Photographers Association, and Western Watersheds Project — said rather than prohibiting data collection, Wyoming could simply increase the penalties for traditional trespassing.

The state can't constitutionally prohibit people from gathering information and conveying it to government agencies, they argue.