Imagine: you’re in Yellowstone National Park and it’s the trip of a lifetime. And you’ve taken the picture (or two) of a lifetime. Perhaps it’s one of the geysers, or a magnificent sunset or a black bear playing in the trees. What if you submitted that photo to the National Weather Service for them to publish on their Facebook page or to a contest sponsored by the Forest Service? According to a new law in Wyoming, that could land you in jail.
It is now illegal in Wyoming to share data collected about the environment in Wyoming with the federal government. Huh? Yeah. Of course, the real reason for the law has nothing to do with pictures or the National Weather Service. Instead, it has a lot to do with the E.coli bacteria that seems to be running rampant in Wyoming waterways. Apparently, there is more bacteria than is deemed safe by federal standards and instead of confronting the issue and dealing with it, Wyoming has decided to threaten prison to anyone who might bring it up.
Why? Well, politics of course. There are a lot of cows in Wyoming—it’s big business there. The cows spend a lot of time in and next to streams. If we mention that there’s E.coli in the waterways, that could result in increased regulation of the ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands. Hence the new law.
The Clean Water Act recognized that it would be almost impossible for every environmental issue across the country be dealt with by a government official exclusively. That’s where citizens come in. Citizens are authorized in the statutes to bring lawsuits against polluters and citizen scientists are relied upon to gather necessary information. Now, if you act in good conscience against a polluter, you are viewed as a criminal in Wyoming—and potentially other states too. This law makes it a crime to collect data from any “open” land. Any land, then, outside of a city or town no matter who owns it—the federal government, the state or a private citizen. It also means that you are, in essence, obligated to keep any information you discover—even if it’s a public health threat—to yourself.
“It runs afoul of the supremacy clause because it interferes with the purposes of federal environmental statutes by making it impossible for citizens to collect the information necessary to bring an enforcement lawsuit,” according to Justin Pidot, an associate law professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, in Slate. The law violates the First Amendment, he says, because it singles out “speech about natural resources” and makes it criminal to participate in expressive activities. It also criminalizes public interaction with federal and state agencies—which violates the First Amendment right to “petition the government.”