Nature photographers beware: sharing your photos with the government could land you in jail. At least, that’s what University of Denver law professor Justin Pidot asserts in his recent Slate article regarding a newly-penned trespassing law in Wyoming.
The bill, which Wyoming Governor Matt Meat signed earlier this week, addresses the “unlawful collection of resource data,” which encompasses “data regarding agriculture, minerals, geology, history, cultural artifacts, archeology, air, water, soil, conservation, habitat, vegetation or animal species.”
While Gov. Mead insists the bill was intended to fortify existing trespassing laws, opponents interpret the rules as a move to stifle whistleblowers and say it could extend to federal lands such as national parks.
Threat of E. coli?
In his essay, Pidot illustrates an elaborate hypothetical scenario in which submitting photos from a Yellowstone trip to a National Weather Service photo contest would technically be a crime. Nature photography is unlikely to trigger legal recourse, but Pidot said the bill aims to shroud more sinister issues within the state.
“The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death,” Pidot wrote, explaining that his pro-bono client, Western Watersheds Project, found that dangerous levels of the bacteria seep into Wyoming’s streams from cattle ranches. “Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And under the new law, the state threatens anyone who would challenge that belief by producing information to the contrary with a term in jail.”
‘As old as common law’
Seth Waggener, a spokesperson for the governor, dismissed Pidot’s claims as “wrong” and “inflammatory rhetoric” in a recent .
“It matters that property owners have the say as to whether someone can come into their house, yard or pasture,” Waggener said. “It matters that those who wish to enter private property seek owners’ permission and respect owners’ decisions. Trespass is as old as the common law from which it stems, and this statute ensures against it.”
Wyoming ranchers and farmers comprised much of the bill’s support, seeking harsher penalties for trespassers on their lands. Brett Moline with the Wyoming Farm Bureau recently told Wyoming Public Media that trespassers in the state often escape consequences and it’s up to researchers to determine whether or not the area they’re studying is private.
“They will need to have permission of the landowner to come on that property and collect data, it does not affect what happens on federal lands,” he said.
Researchers must be ‘vigilant’
This burden of proof could weight heavy on researchers, WyoFile reports. Chris Boswell, the University of Wyoming’s vice president of governmental and community affairs, hopes to gain exemption for university researchers, but failed to persuade lawmakers.
“This means that our researchers need to be sure they have permission on private land and they need to be darn sure they know where they are,” he said. “In the Legislature the attitude was this is the same thing that is expected of hunters in Wyoming and it should be expected of researchers too. … Our folks will need to be very vigilant in order to not run afoul of it.”
According to Pidot, the legislation violates the First Amendment by hampering with social and artistic expression and hinders citizens’ right to petition the government.
“By enacting this law, the Wyoming legislature has expressed its disdain for the freedoms protected by the First Amendment and the environmental protections enshrined in federal statutes,” Pidot wrote. “Today, environmentally conscious citizens face a stark choice: They can abandon efforts to protect the lands they love or face potential criminal charges.”
Pidot didn’t announce any immediate plans to challenge the ruling but urged the U.S. government to take action.
“Ideally, this would entail the U.S. Department of Justice filing a lawsuit to invalidate the Wyoming law, much as it did when it challenged Arizona’s state immigration law as unconstitutional,” he wrote. “At the very least, the federal agencies that manage public lands should issue written statements providing express permission for citizen scientists to continue their efforts to protect our shared environment.”