November 02, 2018

Wyoming judge rules state’s “ag-gag” laws unconstitutional


Recently, Chief Judge Scott Skavdahl of the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming ruled that the state’s “ag-gag” laws which criminalize the collection of research data on public and private land was unconstitutional.

The Judge stated that Wyoming officials failed to demonstrate that the laws are necessary to discourage environmentalists from documenting damage to streams and grasslands because of livestock grazing. "There is simply no plausible reason for the specific curtailment of speech in the statutes beyond a clear attempt to punish individuals for engaging in protected speech that at least some find unpleasant," the Judge said.

This order comes after the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in 2017 tossed the challenge of Wyoming’s “ag-gag” law criminalizing the collection of research data on public and private land back to the trial court for reconsideration.

The two Wyoming trespass laws were originally passed in 2015. The laws prohibit not only trespassing to collect resource data on private land but trespassing on private land to collect data on public land and prohibited an individual from entering onto a land “for the purpose of collecting resource data” without the permission of the landowner.

According to the law, “collecting resource data” included acts such as taking samples and photographs of the land and actually submitting or intending to submit the information to a state or federal agency. The law also prohibited the use of any data collected in violation of the law from being used in any research and mandated the expungement of any such data and also imposed severe penalties of up to one year in prison— which is double the possible jail time for simple trespassing—and a fine of up to $1000.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Western Watersheds Project as well as the National Press Photographers Association responded to the law by suing the state, stating that the law was put in place primarily to prevent environmentally minded organizations and individuals from carrying out studies and potentially uncovering abusive land practices. They further stated that the statute violated the Free Speech and Petition Clauses of the First Amendment.

Judge Skavdahl had at that time rejected the challenge, stating that the law did not infringe on protected speech. However, the Appeals Court had then reversed that decision, stating that “collection of resource data constitutes the protected creation of speech” and then sent the matter back to Judge Skavdahl. Judge Skavdahl stated that, in order for him to uphold the law, Wyoming would have to demonstrate “that the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.”

In response, Wyoming said, the law was put in place “to protect private citizens’ property rights.” Nevertheless, the Judge observed that “the statutes make no attempt at regulating trespass by anyone other than those that subsequently engage in land-related data collection, i.e., other than those that subsequently engage in protected speech.”

Judge Skavdahl thus granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and barred Wyoming from enforcing the statutes in the future.

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