Wyoming Law Criminalizing Collecting Information about Food Safety and Animal Abuse is Likely Unconstitutional

Sunday, January 03, 2016
(photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A federal judge has signaled to Wyoming that its laws criminalizing efforts to expose animal abuse and food safety violations may be unconstitutional.


In response to a lawsuit filed against the “ag-gag” statutes of 2015, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl said this week that the restrictions on data collecting and disseminating may be “a façade for content or viewpoint discrimination,” according to Courthouse News Service. “The court has serious concerns and questions as to the constitutionality of various provisions of these trespass statutes,” Skavdahl wrote.


The laws in question created criminal and civil penalties for anyone who gathers information about or takes photographs of land or resources and turns it over to government agencies. Violators can get a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for a first offense.


Conservationists, animal advocates, academics and the media responded to the new laws by suing in federal court, alleging they violated the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


The plaintiffs (Western Watersheds Project, the National Press Photographers Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Center for Food Safety) said the laws prevent them from collecting information about animal abuse on farms and ranches and about food safety.


“The Wyoming Legislature was not coy about its purposes,” the groups said in their complaint (pdf). “The data censorship statutes were enacted after Wyoming livestock interests sued Western Watersheds Project for allegedly trespassing while collecting water quality samples. Although the statutes are clothed in the language of anti-trespass statutes, they have little in common with Wyoming's traditional trespass laws.”

A similar law was struck down last month in Idaho.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Free-Speech Concerns Dog Wyo. ‘Ag-Gag’ Law (by Philip A. Janquart, Courthouse News Service)

Western Watersheds Project, et al, v. Peter K. Michael, et al (U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming) (pdf)

Lawsuit Claims Wyoming’s Data Trespass Law Protects Violators of Environmental Laws (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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