U.S. appeals court sides with critics of Wyoming's laws on data collection

Sept 7 (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled in favor of environmentalists, photographers and other critics of Wyoming’s so-called data-trespassing laws, which make it illegal for people to cross private property to take photos or collect data on public lands.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver reversed the district court’s conclusions over the statutes with regards to the First Amendment protections and remanded the case to the trial court judge.

Two laws passed last year by Wyoming’s legislature prohibited collecting data, including photos, that could document anything from landscape alterations to animal abuse on public and private lands.

Critics have argued that the laws ban the public’s ability to collect information - from scientific water or air samples, to a school kid’s snapshots during a school outing - from public lands, as well as violate people’s right to report evidence of environmental contamination and other concerns to government regulators.

Wyoming’s laws are similar to a flurry of state “ag gag” laws that have been proposed or passed in recent years. Many of those laws make it illegal for people to secretly take photos or videos on farms or inside slaughterhouses without the owner’s permission.

Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael, whose office is defending the state laws, declined to comment on Thursday.

At least one of the plaintiffs felt confident that the Wyoming laws would ultimately be overturned in the lower courts. “The writing is on the wall,” said Michael Wall, co-director of litigation at Natural Resources Defense Council.

Wyoming’s laws originally prohibited the collection of data on open lands. The state’s legislature later revised them in 2016 to apply only to private lands.

Though Wyoming’s laws are not limited to data collection at or near farm facilities, Thursday’s ruling marks the third state to face skepticism in this arena from judges.

In July, a federal judge ruled that Utah’s ban on undercover recordings of slaughterhouse and farm operations was unconstitutional. In 2015, a district court judge ruled that Idaho’s “ag-gag” law violated the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.

The case is Western Watersheds Project et al v Peter Michael et al, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-8083 (Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Edited by Jan Wolfe and Matthew Lewis)