On June 22, 2017, we blogged about the Wyoming “ag gag” statute designed to discourage undercover reporting in animal facilities. The statute prohibited persons from (1) trespassing on private land for the purpose of collecting data; (2) trespassing to collect data; or (3) trespassing to obtain access to public land for such purposes. The District Court held that the statute implicated no First Amendment concerns, as it merely prohibited trespassing, although the penalties for violation were substantially greater than under the general trespass law.
Last week the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings, including the proper standard of review and a decision on he merits. The appellate court held the act of collecting information on public lands was protected by the First Amendment, because obtaining information is a necessary prerequisite to disseminating it. It relied on several cases holding that the First Amendment protects the recording of public officials’ public conduct.
The Tenth Circuit recognized that not all regulations that incidentally restrict collection or dissemination of information necessarily implicate the First Amendment. For example, the Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on the right to travel to Cuba even though that would interfere with the acquisition of information about the island. The Court suggested that the application of Wyoming’s general trespass statute to trespassers in search of information might not implicate the First Amendment. But the substantially higher penalties in the ag-gag law did.
The appellants in Wyoming did not appeal from the ruling that trespassing with the purpose or effect of collecting information satisfied the First Amendment, so those parts of the statute will remain in effect. The Ninth Circuit has not yet ruled on the successful challenge to Idaho‘s ag-gag law nor the Fourth Circuit on the unsuccessful challenge to North Carolina’s law.
Given the number of these statutes and the inconsistent results reached by the lower courts to date, a successful cert. petition may be in the works.