Freedom means different things to different people, but ever since the Bill of Rights went into effect on December 15, 1791, Americans have enjoyed one freedom that many people in other countries have not — freedom of speech. It’s number one in the Bill of Rights for a reason, because the people who drafted the Constitution thought it was a critical component of liberty. We used to pride ourselves on saying, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
But now, Senators in Wyoming have passed what is being called the “Data Trespassing Bill”, otherwise known as Senate Bill 12. That particular piece of legislation makes it a crime in Wyoming to collect “resource data.” Put another way, it threatens anyone who collects evidence that a corporation is polluting the environment with a fine or imprisonment, even if the information is gathered from public lands or waterways. Furthermore, it makes that information inadmissible as evidence in any civil, criminal or administrative proceeding, according to environmental website Green Is The New Red.
If the law goes into effect, any person who collects information that shows a corporation has polluted the earth, waterways or atmosphere will go to jail. The polluter will be free to continue harming the environment. Is this how our government is supposed to work?
Origins of Senate Bill 12
Senate Bill 12 has grown out of a dispute between cattle ranchers and the Western Watershed Project (WWP). The WWP collected samples of water that showed a high level of e coli bacteria downstream from cattle raising operations. E. coli makes people and animals who drink the water sick.
Factory farmers in every state are feeling pressure to do something about the enormous lagoons full of animal feces on their property. Those lagoons are nothing more than open cesspools and some of then contain millions of gallons of animal waste. When one of them ruptures, everything and everyone downstream gets inundated in a virulent stew that poisons everything in its path.
The ranchers say the WWP shouldn’t be allowed to collect samples from public rivers and lakes to prove their cattle operations are a threat to the environment. They feel so strongly about this, they showered compliant Wyoming senators with sufficient campaign contributions to get Senate Bill 12 introduced and passed, proving once again why the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United is wrong and threatens Americans with an internal coup d’etat by corporations.
Why favor corporations?
Nowhere does the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States say “We the corporations.” They say “We the people,” for a reason. Otherwise, the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are meaningless.
A corporation does not have life in the conventional sense, nor can it have liberty or pursue happiness. If the framers thought of corporations at all, they assumed they would be subservient to the needs of the people. In fact, it has turned out quite the opposite. Corporations write our laws, negotiate our trade agreements and elect our leaders. The people are relegated to keeping silent or facing legal punishment.
Meet the First Amendment
Here is the full text of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Any first year law student can tell you that the provisions of the Bill of Rights are made binding on the states by the 14th Amendment. He or she can also tell you that there is a long line of Supreme Court cases that have examined the First Amendment and declared any government action that has a “chilling effect” on free speech is prohibited.
Is collecting evidence of wrong doing from public lands or waterways an exercise of free speech? Without any doubt. Does Senate Bill 12 have a chilling effect on free speech? Absolutely. So how can Wyoming endorse such a blatantly unconstitutional law? Precisely because corporations have grown so powerful, what they want often trumps the public interest.
100 years ago, Upton Sinclair became a national hero for exposing the horrendous conditions in America’s meat packing plants in his book The Jungle. Today, he would be incarcerated. There is an old expression that says America has the best government money can buy. That’s certainly true today in Wyoming.