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Groups sue Wyoming over ‘data trespassing’ law

The laws make it a crime to collect data on open land if the collector lacks certain permissions.


This story was originally published September 30, 2015 at Wyofile.com. 

A group of conservation, animal welfare, and media groups filed suit challenging the state of Wyoming for its data trespassing laws passed in the 2015 session.

Plaintiffs Western Watersheds Project, National Press Photographers Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Center for Food Safety filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne.

The data trespassing laws made national headlines in May, when an opinion piece in Slate magazine said they could make it illegal for a citizen to share photos taken in Yellowstone National Park with a government agency.

Sponsors of the bills, including Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), said the laws did not reach that far. Yet the language was expansive enough to put scientists at the University of Wyoming on edge, asking for guidance in how to proceed with public lands fieldwork to support research.

Senate File 12 created the crime of data trespassing, and Senate File 80 made data trespassing a civil violation. Importantly, the laws are not explicit in limiting the trespassing charge to private land.

Students plant trees along Bitter Creek on Bureau of Land Management land. A new law in Wyoming makes it illegal to cross private land to collect data on public land.
Bureau of Land Management

The laws make it a crime to collect data on "open land" outside of towns and subdivisions if the data collector lacks written or verbal permission to both access the land and collect data, whether on public or private property. They provide for a fine of up to $5,000 for a second violation, require the expungement of illegally collected data from state agency databases, and prohibit the use of the data in court except as evidence to bring conviction.

The laws "punish communication to government agencies of photos and data taken on open land, criminalizing otherwise lawful advocacy in an attempt to undercut protection of public lands and the environment," the plaintiffs said in a prepared statement.

Wyoming's data collection laws are "blatantly illegal" and violate the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, says Jonathan Ratner, director of Western Watersheds Project's Wyoming division.

"Because the laws target specific types of speech, and specific groups of people, they do not comport with the basic laws of our land," Ratner said in a prepared statement.

Before lawmakers debated the data trespassing bills in the 2015 session, 15 ranchers sued Ratner and the Western Watersheds Project in Sept. 2014 for allegedly trespassing on private land to access Bureau of Land Management parcels to collect water samples. Ratner denies the accusations, saying he only crossed private lands using roads with BLM easements for public travel.

Advocates for Wyoming's data trespassing laws include the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts. The association's director, Bobbie Frank, lobbied for the law, and has said she supports the ranchers in the lawsuit against Western Watersheds Project. Her husband, Dan Frank was one of the attorneys who argued for the ranchers against Western Watersheds Project during the hearing in Lander in May.

The plaintiffs suing the state claim the laws are a "direct response to Western Watersheds Project's collection of water quality data" to highlight E. coli contamination from livestock grazing on public lands. "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 plaintiffs said in a prepared statement.