In March 2015, Wyoming legislators passed a law that makes it illegal to report environmental hazards to the general public or to state officials. Senate Bill 12, “Trespassing to Collect Data,” makes it illegal to “collect resource data” from any “open land,” meaning any land outside of a city or town, whether the land is federal, state, or privately owned. As Justin Pidot and Deirdre Fulton reported, the controversial law protects the interests of private land owners by making it illegal for people to take photographs, sample soils, test water, or to take any kind of environmental data from any private, public or federal land outside of city limits.
Enacted after Wyoming livestock interests sued the Western Watersheds Project for trespassing to collect water samples that revealed “potentially unlawful water pollution: and federal grazing permit violations, the law has drawn criticism because of its contradiction of citizens’ rights to speech and to petition against the government. According to Michael Wall, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “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.”
Organized groups, including the Western Watersheds Project and the NRDC, have started to take the first steps to challenge the law. As Fulton reports, in September 2015 a coalition of advocacy groups filed a lawsuit charging the data trespassing law as “unconstitutional” and “undemocratic.” According to the lawsuit, the data trespass law stifles freedom of speech and criminalize citizen science in Wyoming.
Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, observed that, by passing the law, the state legislature went along with the plan of Wyoming’s agricultural industry to “silence its critics.” According to Bruner, “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.”
This story has gained traction within the independent news agencies, but has failed to receive equivalent coverage in the corporate media. In May 2015, USA Today published one article on the controversy, but the article was very brief, relied on just a few sources, and made it seem as if the law applied only to private land, and not to public lands as well.
In October 2015 the state sought to dismiss the lawsuit against the data trespass laws. As Gregory Nickerson and others reported, in November the plaintiffs filed a response to the state’s motion to dismiss. The response re-asserted their standing to sue the state; that data collection of the sort outlawed is, in fact, a form of constitutionally protected free speech; and that data trespassing laws violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution, among other factors.
Deirdre Fulton, “Groups Challenge Wyoming’s ‘Downright Un-American’ Censorship Laws,” Common Dreams, September 30, 2015, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/09/30/groups-challenge-wyomings-downright-un-american-censorship-laws.
Justin Pidot, “Forbidden Data,” Slate, May 11, 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/05/wyoming_law_against_data_collection_protecting_ranchers_by_ignoring_the.html
Gregory Nickerson, “Six Points against Wyoming’s Data Trespass Laws,” WyoFile, November 11, 2015, http://www.wyofile.com/blog/six-points-wyomings-data-trespass-laws/.
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