NPPA Joins Suit To Overturn Controversial Wyoming Data Censorship Laws

Sunrise on the Grand Tetons along the shores of String Lake, Wyoming. Photograph © 2015 Donald R. Winslow
Sunrise on the Grand Tetons along the shores of String Lake, Wyoming. Photograph © 2015 Donald R. Winslow

CHEYENNE, WY (September 29, 2015) – A diverse coalition of conservation, press, academic and animal-protection groups filed suit today in federal court seeking to strike down a pair of Wyoming state laws that stifle freedom of speech and make citizen science illegal in the state. The suit claims that in violation of Americans’ constitutional rights, the laws punish communication to government agencies of photographs and data taken on open land, criminalizing otherwise lawful advocacy in an attempt to undercut protection of public lands and the environment.

The challenge to Wyoming’s data trespass rules was brought in the federal district court of Wyoming by Western Watersheds Project, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Center for Food Safety.

NPPA president Mark Dolan said, “NPPA members often photograph and record open land in Wyoming, whether documenting the environment, wildlife, weather emergencies, or to simply document and share the grandeur of that great state. The state of Wyoming has unjustifiably put photojournalists at risk of civil suit and criminal prosecution for this important work, and more importantly, they have jeopardized the public’s right to receive the information and images photojournalists provide them. NPPA decries the laws’ blatant violation of constitutionally-protected freedoms of the press that are the hallmark of this nation.”

Legislative sponsors of the laws, signed by Governor Mead in May 2015, were open about the fact that the bills were crafted to deter members of the public from gathering information about environmental degradation in the state with the intent to share it with the government. The laws punish persons who gather information about land or resources and then communicate or plan to communicate that information to government agencies. The laws are written so expansively that they could even be interpreted to criminalize submission of photographs to the National Park Service from some popular tourist sites in the state such as the Grand Tetons, Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone National Park.

The laws came 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. But those citizen science efforts are not unique to the region, and other conservation organizations undertake scientific studies in the region that would be similarly barred.

The data-censorship laws are a significant expansion of the state’s trespass statutes, penalizing even mistaken entry to open lands, and even authorized entry to those lands, if specific approval to collect information was not expressly received.

 “It’s clear that Wyoming’s agricultural industry looking for a way to silence its critics, and the state legislature went along with the plan” said Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, NPPA’s co-plaintiff in the suit. “It’s a shame that 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.”  

“Across most of the country people are told, ‘if you see something, say something.’ In Wyoming, these laws completely flip that script making it illegal to share information about environmental or food safety problems the public might observe,” said Cristina Stella, staff attorney at Center for Food Safety, which is another plaintiff in the suit.

The groups will be represented by Justin R. Pidot, a law professor at the University of Denver (counsel for Western Watersheds Project and National Press Photographers Association); Reed Zars; Michael Wall and Margaret Hsieh (counsel for NRDC); Deepak Gupta, Gupta Wessler PLLC (counsel for National Press Photographers Association), Leslie Brueckner, Public Justice (counsel for Western Watersheds Project), Matthew Strugar (counsel for PETA), Paige Tomaselli and Cristina Stella (counsel for Center for Food Safety), Justin Marceau, of counsel at Animal Legal Defense Fund and law professor at the University of Denver (counsel for Western Watersheds Project, and NPPA.