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Federal judge rules against Wyoming's 'data trespass' laws on First Amendment grounds

Federal judge rules against Wyoming's 'data trespass' laws on First Amendment grounds

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A federal judge ruled Monday that Wyoming laws specifically outlawing trespassing on the way to collect research data are unconstitutional.

The data trespass laws, passed in 2015 and amended under judicial criticism in 2016, came under criticism from a variety of activist groups that argued the statutes would chill activity undertaken by whistleblowers and citizen scientists. Data collectors feared they might accidentally cross private lands in the process of collecting data to submit to state and federal authorities and be at risk of prosecution.

Legislators who supported the laws have said they were written in defense of private property rights.

The Monday decision prohibits the Wyoming government from enforcing the portion of statutes -- which have become colloquially known as “data trespass” laws -- that applies to people who cross private lands without permission on their way to collect resource data. The judge did not rule on portions of the law that apply to people who collect such data from private lands without permission or trespass to do so.

“The ‘data trespass’ statutes were a blatant attempt by the Wyoming Legislature to block data collection on public lands and take away the public’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” Jonathan Ratner of the Western Watersheds Project said in a press release.

Attorney General Peter Michael, whose office handled the case, did not immediately respond to a Tuesday afternoon request for comment.

A handful of activist groups — including the Western Watersheds Project, National Press Photographers Association, National Resources Defense Council and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — sued the state in 2015 seeking to have the laws struck down.

Citing constitutional issues, an appeals court ruled last year against the state and sent the case back to the federal district court it began in.

“We conclude that the statutes regulate protected speech under the First Amendment and that they are not shielded from constitutional scrutiny merely because they touch upon access to private property,” the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision reads. “Although trespassing does not enjoy First Amendment protection, the states at issue target the ‘creation’ of speech by imposing heightened penalties on those who collect resource data.”

In Monday’s ruling, Judge Scott Skavdahl granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and wrote that the section of the statutes created additional criminal conduct and penalties on the basis of protected speech.

Although trespassing in Wyoming was already illegal, prosecutors must prove under the general trespassing statutes that the conduct is not accidental. Under the data trespass laws, anybody who entered private lands — intentionally or not — while attempting to collect land or land use data would be subject to prosecution.

Skavdahl wrote the loss of the protection against accidental trespass was enough to stifle legal and legitimate attempts to collect data.

That data collection is a form of free speech protected under the First Amendment, the judge wrote.

“The Wyoming statutes ... only prevent speech regarding land and land use after crossing private property without permission, not speech about other topics,” Skavdahl stated in the decision.

The judge noted that landowners — who provided statements at the state’s request — told the court they have as many or more problems with hunters, campers, climbers and government officials. Skavdahl wrote the state was unable to demonstrate why data collectors should be singled out.

“The government has no legitimate explanation for the specific targeting of data collectors over other types of individuals engaged in trespass,” Skavdahl wrote. “There is simply no plausible reason for the specific curtailment of speech in the statutes beyond a clear attempt to punish individuals for engaging in protected speech that at least some find unpleasant.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the extent of the judge's ruling. The Star-Tribune regrets the error.

Follow crime reporter Shane Sanderson on Twitter @shanersanderson


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Crime and Courts Reporter

Shane Sanderson joined the Star-Tribune in 2017. He covers courts and law enforcement agencies in Natrona County and across the state. Shane studied journalism at the University of Missouri and worked at newspapers there before moving to Wyoming.

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