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Groups Call Wyoming Ag-Gag Law Censorship

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CN) - A diverse group of conservationists, animal advocates, academics and the press filed a federal lawsuit challenging two Wyoming laws they say chill free speech and punish people who collect data on open land.

Signed into law by Gov. Matt Mead earlier this year, the "data trespass" laws impose criminal and civil liabilities on individuals who gather information about, or take photographs of, land or resources and then deliver, or plan to deliver, the data to government agencies.

"Although the data censorship statutes are clothed in the language of anti-trespass statutes, they have little in common with Wyoming's traditional trespass laws," according to a 71-page complaint filed Tuesday in Cheyenne. "Plaintiffs have no choice but to sue to invalidate these statutes, because the laws are aimed directly at plaintiffs' and their members' constitutionally protected activities."

The new laws, coined the "data censorship statutes" by opponents, are so broad that merely taking a picture of a landscape at a national park and submitting it for publication could trigger up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, the lawsuit claims.

National Press Photographers Association president Mark Dolan said the law puts photographers in a difficult position and is a constitutional overreach.

"The state of Wyoming has unjustifiably put photojournalists at risk of civil suit and criminal prosecution," he said in a statement on Tuesday. "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."

Dolan's group and Western Watersheds Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Center for Food Safety sued Mead and Wyoming Attorney General Todd Parfit for violations of the U.S. Constitution.

Western Watersheds claims the laws were passed in direct response to water quality data it collected that reveals the agricultural industry's environmental impacts on the state's streams.

"The Wyoming Legislature was not coy about its purposes," the complaint states. "The data censorship statutes were enacted after Wyoming livestock interests sued Western Watersheds Project ... for allegedly trespassing while collecting water quality samples."

Western Watersheds, which allegedly passed its information on to the government, claims the data showed "potentially unlawful water pollution and federal grazing permit violations."

"Relying on Western Watersheds' data, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality had in 2012 included three streams on a list of water bodies that violate state water quality standards," the complaint says. "In response, and at the urging of the livestock industry, the Wyoming Legislature enacted the data censorship statutes for the specific purpose of deterring and punishing persons who gather such environmental data without express authorization, if the data is (or is intended to be) reported to lawful authorities."

Mead, who comes from a long line of ranchers, was en route to Denver on Wednesday and could not immediately address questions about his links to the agricultural industry or comment on the issue of civil liberties that opponents of the statutes say are being sacrificed in place of corporate interests.

"Gov. Mead signed this bill into law earlier this year because he believes in private property rights - whether it's agricultural land or a city lot - and he believes this legislation strengthens those rights," David Bush, communications director for the Governor's office, told Courthouse News in an email.

He confirmed that Mead appointed rancher Mark Gordon as state treasurer following the death of Joe Meyer, but pointed out that voters later elected him for a full term.

"Mr. Gordon was appointed to fill the remaining term of State Treasurer Joe Meyer who passed away in 2012. Mr. Gordon was then elected to his own full term in 2014 by a wide majority of Wyoming voters," Bush said. "Gov. Mead has a ranching background as well, as his family has ranched in Wyoming for generations and he often talks about returning to his ranch after his term is done."

He added: "The Attorney General's office is still reviewing the complaint filed yesterday. I'm sure the governor will have more to say once he is briefed by the AG on this issue."

Similar Law Shot Down in Idaho

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a long-time cattleman, signed a similar law in February 2014 as an "emergency measure" in reaction to a national expose on ABC News' "Nightline" of animal abuse that occurred at a dairy in Hansen, Idaho.

The law, known as the ag-gag law, was drafted by the Idaho Dairymen's Association and made it illegal to secretly film "agricultural production" in Idaho, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and a one-year prison term.

Several groups, including PETA and the Center for Food Safety, filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in Boise.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill granted the plaintiffs summary judgment in August 2015, ruling that the law restricts free speech and violates the Constitution's equal protection clause. There is still no indication whether the state plans to take the issue to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in Wyoming must wait for the state's answer to its initial complaint.

"It's clear that Wyoming's agricultural industry [is] looking for a way to silence its critics, and the state legislature went along with the plan," said executive director of Western Watersheds Project Travis Bruner in Tuesday's statement. "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."

PETA Foundation general counsel Jeff Kerr added that "Time after time, PETA's exposes have helped law-enforcement agencies take action against the very type of illegal cruelty to animals that Wyoming's rules will help to conceal."

The plaintiffs are represented by Reed Zars, in Laramie, Wyoming; Justin Pidot and Justin Marceau of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law; Michael Wall and Margaret Hsieh of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco; Deepak Gupta of Gupta Wessler, in Washington; Leslie Brueckner of Public Justice in Oakland, California; and Paige Tomaselli and Cristina Stella of the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco.

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