When I was pitching my proposal for Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech, one of the concerns raised by publishers was that the book was too local or regional. Presumably the oppression of public discourse by corporations was unique to Wyoming (really?!). Although it is abundantly evident that corporations are busy funding right-wing think tanks to undermine the science of climate change (having succeeded in confusing the public and politicians with the health risks of tobacco and the hazards of acid rain) at a national level, my home state continues to serve as a case study in censorship.
Justin Pidot just wrote a searing analysis of Wyoming’s newest attempt to suppress public discourse. In his article published on Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/ 2015/05/wyoming_law_against_data_collection_protecting_ranchers_by_ignoring_the.html).
This attorney takes exception to a bill passed by the Wyoming legislature which makes it a crime to “collect resource data” (including taking photographs!) from any “open land” (anywhere outside of a city or town, regardless of ownership). As Pidot points out, if you come across some environmental disaster posing an imminent threat to public health, you’re obliged, according to this law, to keep it to yourself.
Of course the irony is that the conservatives in the Republican-dominated legislature love to claim allegiance to the United States Constitution. And this new law is utterly contrary to the First Amendment guarantee of free speech by criminalizing a variety of expressive and artistic activities. Moreover, it violates our First Amendment right to petition the government (any data collected without permission of the private, state or federal owner of the land cannot be taken into account by regulators).
So, the Wyoming legislature has provided the state’s citizens with a bleak choice. Individuals can abandon citizen science that could protect the environment or they can forge ahead in defiance of the law. This would seem to be a classic case in which civil disobedience is warranted. Pidot thinks that the US government also should get into the act. He proposes that the U.S. Department of Justice should file a lawsuit to invalidate this blatantly unconstitutional legislation—or at least land management agencies should provide a blanket endorsement of citizen scientists on federal lands. Don’t hold your breath (unless, of course, you come across an industry’s toxic waste dump on public lands).