Several advocacy groups were vindicated this week when a federal appeals court ruled Wyoming’s data trespass laws unconstitutional. Now, a lower court will reconsider the statutes, which forbid people from trespassing in order to take pictures or data samples from public lands. The laws also restrict agencies from using data they receive from people who got it by crossing private lands.
The Wyoming legislature passed the statutes in 2015 after a group of ranchers sued Western Watersheds Project for crossing their private land to collect stream samples, which the organization intended to use to monitor the impact of livestock on water quality.
Opponents of the laws worried that they would prevent citizen science and oversight of public land use. Lawmakers softened the statutes in 2016, but according to the court’s ruling, they didn’t go far enough. Jonathan Ratner, Wyoming’s director of the Western Watersheds Project, said the laws have been a waste of state resources.
“All the defense of these illegal statutes have essentially been at the cost of taxpayer money and time that could be used at solving problems as opposed to shutting down free speech and public oversight,” Ratner said.
Supporters of the laws have maintained that the state should do more to protect private property rights. But critics like Ratner said the state can do that with its existing anti-trespassing laws, without violating free speech.
“If they want to further increase the penalties of trespass, that is within their process,” Ratner said. “But essentially criminalizing oversight activities – that doesn’t fly.”
By oversight, he means collecting data to monitor the impacts of ranching or other activities on public lands. Courts have ruled against laws in Utah and Idaho which faced similar criticisms, citing free speech. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law violated the first amendment.