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US state makes it illegal to collect evidence of pollution

Daksha Rangan
Digital Reporter

Friday, January 8, 2016, 8:36 PM - In the State of Wyoming, taking a photo of a polluted river could end in a jail sentence.

Wyoming has been under scrutiny from environmental organizations and scientists alike since the enactment of Senate Bill 12 – commonly referred to as the Data Trespass Bill. Passed in March 2015, a pair of laws makes it a civil and criminal offence to collect data from any public, private, or federal land outside city borders.

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The new law is in place to filter communication through the state or federal government. So any sample of material taken or photographed “to preserve information in any form from open land, which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government,” is a prosecutable offence.

To put it simply, suppose a local takes a walk through a national park in Wyoming. If that local sees a polluted stream and decides to take a photo of it, she may do so. But if that local decides to show her findings to state authorities to call for better care of federal parks, without obtaining permission from the owner of the land, she could face up to one year in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.

The legislation isn’t necessarily about persecuting locals that are out for a stroll. But that only seems to make matters more troubling. The restriction on gathering data primarily impacts environmentalists, scientists, and even students.

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The law was enacted at a peculiar time. It came into effect shortly after environmental activists from Western Watersheds Project gathered data proving that Wyoming’s streams were contaminated with E. coli at a rate soaring substantially past the legal limit.

Western Watersheds Project attributed the E. coli to cow manure and were subsequently sued by several ranchers who claim the Project’s staff trespassed on private property to gather data.

Justin Pidot, assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, is the Counsel of Record in the current case against Wyoming’s Data Trespass Bill. He also represented Western Watersheds Project in a previous case. Pidot says that contrary to what the bill indicates, it has very little to do with protecting private property and more to do with restricting truthful conversation about the state of the environment.

“If someone knowingly trespasses on your property you might be able to prosecute it under the criminal trespass law. So there’s already plenty of ways for property owners to be able to protect their private property,” Pidot says.” This law … is about preventing people communicating information about the environment and animal agriculture to the government.”

Pidot adds that these laws are worse than putting economic interests before environmental conservation.

“What [these laws] say, is that the economic interests of these industries are more important than the rule of law itself. There are laws on the books that are being violated by these economic interests. Animal cruelty laws, environmental laws, and the like.”

The state of Wyoming was recently nominated for a satirical anti-progress award on the basis of their new trespass laws.

Wyoming shares the spotlight with nine other nominees for the 2015 Luddite Awards, selected by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). ITIF, an educational research establishment, nominated the state for being among “the worst of the year’s worst innovation killers.”

Thumbnail image courtesy of Raban Holzner, Flickr.

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