Environmental, Journalism Groups Amend Constitutional Rights Lawsuit
The 2016 Legislature’s changes, prompted by a federal court ruling, to the 2015 laws forbidding collecting natural resource data on open lands didn’t change much of anything, according environmental and photojournalism groups that sued state and county officials last year.
So those groups filed an amended complaint Monday to their September 2016 federal lawsuit, and they still contend the civil and criminal anti-trespassing laws — nicknamed Data Censorship Laws — violate the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“Nonetheless, as revised, the Laws still retain the invidious effect and purpose of selectively punishing individuals who collect truthful information about certain subjects related to the environment and agricultural practices,” wrote attorney Reed Zars of Laramie.
Zars and other attorneys represent the Western Watersheds Project, National Press Photographers Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., the Center for Food Safety, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The Legislature’s revisions, and the amended complaint, follow U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl’s ruling in December that the laws pose serious concerns about free speech and other constitutional issues. “At this stage, the Court finds it difficult to conceive a permissible rationale for preventing the collection of resource data on lands which the public has a right to be upon.”
The state defendants asserted the laws were a response to complaints from legislators’ constituents about trespassers entering their land to collect resource data to submit to state and federal land-use agencies, Skavdahl wrote.
But they didn’t explain why the new laws would deter trespassing any more than the existing ones would, he wrote.
In his ruling, Skavdahl agreed to dismiss Gov. Matt Mead as a defendant. The remaining defendants are Attorney General Peter Michael, Department of Environmental Quality Director Todd Parfitt, and the attorneys for Fremont, Lincoln and Sublette counties.
Michael did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.
In the amended complaint, the plaintiffs cited legislators’ comments who referred to environmental groups as “‘activists,’ ‘extremists,’ ‘nefarious,’ and ‘evil.'” One Wyoming senator said during the debates on the original statutes, “‘Collecting data to be able to hold back certain organizations — I would tell you that’s exactly what this bill’s designed to do.'”
These comments, coupled with the Legislature’s amending rather than revoking the laws, show that nothing changed from 2015, according to the amended complaint. “The Legislature’s decision to single out for punishment groups whose views the Legislature dislikes violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Data Censorship Laws not only would punish those who collected data, they would would require government agencies to ignore, if not expunge, information supplied to them about public health, the environment and animal welfare.
And because the boundaries of state, federal, open, public and private lands, and roads are sometimes difficult to determine, the amended complaint said the laws would punish seemingly harmless or even responsible civic behavior.
“The Law on its face appears even to criminalize the conduct of a hiker who unintentionally crosses onto private land without authorization, observes an illegal drug growing operation, records her observations and the location of those observations on her cell phone, and reports those facts to a park ranger or county sheriff.”
To read or download the amended complaint, click here: