Wyoming laws threaten to criminalize newsgathering and interfere with journalists’ First Amendment rights, Reporters Committee argues

June 8, 2018

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is supporting the National Press Photographers Association and two environmental groups in their challenge to two Wyoming laws that could discourage newsgathering in the state, particularly for photojournalists.

The laws increase criminal and civil penalties for people who cross private property without permission, even if they did so unknowingly, to take photos on public land and record geolocation data for where the photos were taken.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Wednesday, the Reporters Committee urged a federal court to declare the laws an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment because they restrict photojournalists’ ability to cover news events, are overbroad and do not serve a government interest that’s significant enough to overcome journalists' First Amendment rights. The challenged statutes discourage photojournalists from covering the news for fear of being subjected to higher penalties if they travel across private property on their way to take photographs of a newsworthy event on public lands.

"Access to public lands is critically important for photojournalists who need to be in the right place at the right time to capture images that show the public firsthand what’s happening in their communities," said Reporters Committee Staff Attorney Caitlin Vogus. "These laws significantly hinder journalists’ ability to do their jobs and inform the public without the threat of facing criminal or civil charges."

In the brief, the Reporters Committee argues that, especially in a breaking news situation, taking extra time to research routes to the scene of a news event and confirm that they don’t cross any private property — instead of taking the fastest route — can cause a journalist to miss capturing a crucial moment that best illustrates the event to the public. As a result, "the heightened trespassing penalties imposed by these statutes would prevent and deter photographers from successfully pursuing breaking news stories."

The brief also notes that modern newsgathering and publishing tools — from smartphone cameras to social media platforms — often automatically record location data for photographs. Even if a journalist could disable these features, location is often a central component of certain forms of journalism and has been used to map poverty across the U.S. and plot the course of natural disasters, the brief explains. In this case, the laws in Wyoming could "prevent or deter journalism employing the same or similar methods" in the state.

Read the full amicus brief.