A federal lawsuit is heading to trial after a judge ruled two new trespassing laws to thwart environmental research on open lands pose serious concerns about free speech and other constitutional issues.

"At this stage, the Court finds it difficult to conceive a permissible rationale for preventing the collection of resource data on lands which the public has a right to be upon," U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl wrote in his opinion on Monday.

Despite existing trespassing laws, the new laws passed by the Legislature earlier this year unconstitutionally target people for a specific action -- collecting information that would be passed to government regulators -- just because some people don't like what may be found, Skavdahl wrote.

"'If the constitutional conception of "equal protection of the laws" means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare ... desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest,'" he wrote, citing case law.

The plaintiffs -- Western Watersheds Project, National Press Photographers Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., and Center for Food Safety --  filed the lawsuit Sept. 29, claiming Senate File 12 (the criminal law) and Senate File 80 are unconstitutional.

Three defendants -- Gov. Matt Mead, Attorney General Peter Michael, and Department of Environmental Quality Director Todd Parfitt -- filed a motion Oct. 20 to dismiss the lawsuit. The plaintiffs should not include Mead as a defendant, they weren't being injured by the law, and they don't have legitimate claims, they wrote. (The other defendants are the attorneys for Fremont, Lincoln and Sublette counties.)

 

Skavdahl heard the oral arguments about the motion in federal court in Casper on Dec. 11.

Monday, he agreed that Mead should be dismissed as a defendant. He also agreed with the defendants that the plaintiffs erred when they claimed the new trespass laws conflicted with certain federal laws.

But Skavdahl agreed the new laws violate the free speech and petition clauses under the First Amendment, and the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment.

The new laws claim to prevent illegal trespass, but those laws already existed, he wrote.

The state defendants asserted the new laws were a response to complaints from legislators' constituents about trespassers entering their land to collect resource data to submit to state and federal land-use agencies, Skavdahl wrote.

But they didn't explain why the new laws would deter trespassing any more than the existing ones would, he wrote.

The new laws are a problem because they apply to only certain kinds of trespassers, impose harsher punishments, prohibit the admission of the findings of possible wrongdoing, and require the removal of any information found, Skavdahl wrote. "Furthermore, the damages provision under the civil trespass statute appears to identify a desire to suppress particular content or viewpoint of speech."

Wednesday, Attorney General Michael wrote in an email that he's declining to comment because the case continues.

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To read or download Judge Skavdahl's order, click here: