Horse roundup site must be accessible, Reporters Committee argues

Press Release | June 3, 2011

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged a federal appeals court this week to order a federal trial court to reconsider its decision that a photographer's First Amendment rights were not violated when she was not allowed to photograph the roundup of wild horses on federal land in Nevada.

Joined by the National Press Photographer's Association, the Reporters Committee told the U.S. Court of Appeals (9th Cir.) in the case of Leigh v. Salazar argues that rules established by the Bureau of Land Management, which operates under the authority of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, amount to an unconstitutional restriction of the right to gather news on government property.

Photojournalist Leigh sought access to witness the BLM Silver King wild horse gather in Nevada, in which wranglers round up excess wild horses on government land. Hearing reports that horses had been mistreated, Leigh sought to photograph the gather but was allowed only limited access. The district court denied Leigh's motion to gain additional access to the roundup, ruling the action moot as it had already occurred and that Leigh was unlikely to succeed on the merits of her claim.

"The First Amendment protects the people's right to access and gather information," said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. "Any government attempt to prevent people from witnessing public events on public land has to meet a high and limited bar, which the district court did not require the BLM to meet in this case."

The friend of the court brief argues that the issue is far from moot, as the likelihood of future horse gathers on government land necessitates a decision regarding the First Amendment issues raised, including the right to gather news of public interest and the right of access to events on government property.

"The evidence that [Leigh] and other members of the public were prevented from viewing significant portions of the horse gather raises serious doubts as to whether the restrictions were justified in light of the First Amendment right at issue," the brief argues.

The Reporters Committee and NPPA urge the appeals court to send the case back to the district court to not only reconsider its ruling that the issue is moot, but also to weigh the First Amendment rights at issue against the government's restrictions on access and newsgathering.

The Reporters Committee-NPPA brief is available online.

Founded in 1970 to combat an increase in subpoenas seeking reporters' confidential sources, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to more than 2,000 working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee sets up special event reporters' hotlines, is a party in amicus briefs and statements of support, and it offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists year-round. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.