Teresa Scassa - Blog

Thursday, 21 September 2017 08:27

Data collection and free speech - an important issue for a data-driven society

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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A decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit highlights the power dynamics around rights to collect and share data. It marks an important victory for environmental activists, and should also be of interest to all those who engage in citizen science, as well as community-based environmental monitoring.

The case arose after the Wyoming legislature passed a law titled Trespassing to Unlawfully Collect Resource Data that imposed civil and criminal liability on any person who crossed over private land in order to “access adjacent or proximate land where he collects resource data.” The statutory definitions of resource data included all kinds of data gathering activity from taking notes to photographing wildlife or taking samples of soil or water.

The backstory to the legislation involved efforts by environmental activists with the Western Watersheds Project to document the impact of cattle grazing on water quality, and to push for limits on grazing on public lands. These efforts were opposed by cattle ranchers, who apparently carry enough clout to push the legislature to enact such a law. A predecessor statute in 2015, titled Trespassing to Collect Data, created civil and criminal liability for collecting data on “open lands”. After the constitutionality of the 2015 law was challenged, it was amended to prohibit crossing private land without permission in order to collect data on “adjacent or proximate land” (which might be public land). It was this amended version that was considered by the appellate court.

The issue before the Court was not whether there was a broad right to collect resource data on either public or private land. Rather, it was whether the state, by creating new civil and criminal trespass penalties for those who crossed private land without permission in order to collect data on public land, violated the free speech rights of the data collectors. The plaintiffs’ argument was essentially that although there were already penalties for trespass on private land, the statute created additional penalties for those who trespassed on private land for the purpose of collecting data on public land. Thus, the court framed the issue as “not whether trespassing is protected conduct, but whether the act of collecting resource data on public lands qualifies as protected speech.” The court noted that the prohibited acts under the law involved “collecting water samples, taking handwritten notes about habitat conditions, making an audio recording of one’s observation of vegetation, or photographing animals”, so long as location data was also included.

The Court noted that a number of federal and state environmental statutes and regulations provided for public submission of environmental data as part of assessment and decision-making processes. The plaintiffs argued that a law restricting their ability to gather environmental data inhibited their ability to participate in such processes, thus limiting their freedom of speech. The Court agreed, noting that the First Amendment extends to the “creation” of speech. The Court observed that “An individual who photographs animals or takes notes about habitat conditions is creating speech in the same manner as an individual who records a police encounter”. The Court also found that the taking of samples, though “somewhat further afield of pure speech”, was protected. In this case, the samples were characterized by the Court as “information plaintiffs need to engage in environmental advocacy”. The Court also observed that the plaintiffs used the data they collected in advocacy activities, and that this type of political engagement was at the core of the First Amendment protection.

The Court does caution that there is no general “unrestrained right to gather information”. As a result, laws that, by banning activities incidentally prevent the ability to gather information about those activities would not run afoul of the First Amendment. In this way, a general prohibition on trespass does not offend the First Amendment, even if it means that someone would be equally barred from trespassing to gather information. What was problematic here was that the laws created new penalties that specifically applied to trespass for data gathering activities.

Although the legislation in this case might seem to be an outlier product of an aggressive stakeholder lobby of government, the issues it raises have a broader significance. Control over data, access to data and even the ability to create data are all crucially important in our data-driven society. My ongoing research explores issues of ownership, control and access to data – expect to see more posts on these topics over the course of the year.

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