- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The state of Wyoming is asking a federal judge to dismiss a revised lawsuit from a coalition of environmental groups who say the state Legislature didn’t go far enough this year in amending laws that would make trespassing to collect data a crime.

A coalition of environmental, animal rights and other groups filed suit challenging the original Wyoming data-trespassing laws enacted last year. The coalition claimed the state was trying to stifle criticism of resource management decisions and block activists from exposing animal cruelty.

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl last year expressed concern with the laws’ original language. The original laws sought to prohibit collecting data on “open lands,” and the groups argued that could be construed to include public lands.

Wyoming Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, sponsored the measures that were adopted as state law. He also sponsored amendments to those laws this year that removed the “open lands” language and specified the prohibitions only apply to private land.

Hicks has said he sponsored the measures because landowners in his district have experienced state and federal officials coming onto their property without permission to take water quality samples and conduct wildlife surveys.

Although the Legislature revised the laws to remove the open lands language, the groups still say the laws violate their members’ constitutional right to collect data and turn it over to the government.

The groups opposing the laws are the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Center for Food Safety, National Press Photographers Association, Natural Resources Defense Council and Western Watersheds Project.

In an amended complaint filed last month, the groups stated that even though the Wyoming Legislature revised the civil and criminal laws to specify that they only applied to trespassing to collect data on private lands, they remain unconstitutional.

“The data censorship laws make criminals and scofflaws of those who collect information necessary to speak out about what they see and find on lands within Wyoming,” the revised complaint states.

The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office this week filed a response asking Skavdahl to reject the groups’ new complaint.

Given this year’s revisions by the Legislature, the AG’s Office says the groups no longer have any argument that the state laws infringe on their rights.

“The 2016 trespass statutes are rationally tied to the state’s interest in discouraging individuals from entering private property without permission to obtain resource data,” the office stated.

An attempt to reach Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael for comment wasn’t immediately successful.

Justin Pidot, a Colorado lawyer representing Western Watersheds and the press photographers group, said the groups maintain that the revised state laws violate the rights of their membership to collect information and report it to government regulators.

“The state’s strategy has been consistent from the get-go,” Pidot said. “They want to pretend that these laws are purely about trespass, even though elements of the laws have nothing to do with entry onto private property. My expectation is that just as those arguments were entirely unavailing last time that they tried them, they’re not going to get them anywhere this time.”

Pidot said Wyoming clearly can impose stiffer penalties for trespassing across the board if it chooses to. “What the state can’t do is say certain people have heightened penalties because of First Amendment-protected activities, and that’s what the laws continue to do,” he said.

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