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Saving the Planet is Free Speech

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Exercising free speech above the West Elk coal mine in Colorado.

It’s official now, saving the planet is protected speech under the U.S. Constitution.

That’s according to a landmark legal win earlier this month by our friends at Western Watersheds Project. It’s a victory that not only upholds the rights of environmental advocates, like WildEarth Guardians, to document and spread the word about the state of the environment, but also reaffirms the rights of advocates across the United States to document injustice in the pursuit of justice.

In a powerful opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit struck down a State of Wyoming law that penalized people for “collecting resource data.” What did “collecting resource data” include?  Pretty much every form of documenting environmental conditions. As the 10th Circuit noted, “collecting resource data” included “writing notes on habitat conditions, photographing wildlife, or taking water samples.”

The law was spurred by a handful of ranchers who were unhappy that a tenacious advocate, Jonathan Ratner (another friend of WildEarth Guardians), dared to gather water quality data demonstrating cows were defiling streams on public lands. If you’re wondering how cows defile streams on public lands, just think of the obvious.
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Ostensibly, Wyoming claimed that it was just preventing trespassing.  However, in their misguided attacks on environmental advocates, their laws created a broad new set of crimes based on whether people “collected resource data.” The result was a law that effectively criminalized the public’s ability to document environmental destruction, particularly destruction that was contrary to law.

While the law was an improvement from an earlier version that was amended by the State of Wyoming (which itself drew understandably widespread criticism for prohibiting even nature photography), it still had a critical flaw:  it criminalized the practice of gathering and sharing environmental data.

To say Wyoming’s law was dangerous was an understatement.  It was a wholesale attack on the very nature of the work that WildEarth Guardians and other nonprofit environmental organizations conduct. Gathering data, including pictures, video, and reports on environmental conditions is critical to enforcing environmental laws and protecting the public interest.

Take our documentation of fossil fuel destruction in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeast Montana. While WildEarth Guardians doesn’t condone trespassing, if any one of these pictures were taken after inadvertent trespassing, they would have been crimes.

More importantly, regardless of trespassing, what Wyoming’s law did was turn the practice of documenting the environment into a crime. Not surprisingly, the 10th Circuit agreed this violated the First Amendment, finding the “collection of resource data” to constitute “protected creation of speech.”

This is a huge win for social change advocates of all stripes. For WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program, it means we can safely document the destruction wrought by the fossil fuel industry on our public lands. It means that our work to take pictures, record data, tell stories, and create videos is, in fact, protected under the First Amendment.

This is a huge deal. Never before has there been a ruling that so clearly upholds our work to defend the planet as protected by the U.S Constitution.

A gigantic thanks to Jonathan Ratner and Western Watersheds Project for standing up to Wyoming and defending our rights. WildEarth Guardians and others all owe an immense debt of gratitude for the work they’ve put into protecting the U.S. Constitution so we can protect the planet.

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