(Reno, NV) Wild Horse Education (WHE), a Nevada organization devoted to the protection of Mustangs and Burros on public lands, continued a landmark legal challenge in federal court in Reno over the last two days. The organization founder and Plaintiff, photojournalist Laura Leigh originally filed this case, now known as the Press Freedom Case, in 2010 against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency, tasked with the care and management of these heritage animals.
The case created a published opinion in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals supporting press freedoms.
“When the government announces it is excluding the press for reasons such as administrative convenience, preservation of evidence, or protection of a reporter’s safety, its real motive may be to prevent the gathering of information about government abuses or incompetence.” Newsgathering Press Access and the First Amendment, 44 Stan. L. Rev. 927, 949 (1992). Cited in Leigh v Salazar, 677 F 3d 892.”
Leigh filed because she was continually and consistently denied access, given discriminatory access compared to other members of the press and experienced arbitrary restraints to view the horses and burros during BLM roundups, in effect denying a First Amendment right and access of the public to BLM operations.
The Reporters Committee for Free Press and National Press Photographers Association have signed on to this case through Amicus.
During court proceedings over the last two days Leigh’s attorney, Gordon Cowan, presented compelling arguments demonstrating that historically access to wild horses during roundups has been provided, that there is a serious public interest in wild horses, and that BLM has been increasing restrictions over the last three years.
Terri Farley, a well-known children’s author was one of the witnesses for the Plaintiff. Asked why she got involved in this case, Ms. Farley, responded, “Years ago, I wrote my first Phantom Stallion book. I included dedications to BLM for all the help they gave me in being able to see wild horses at roundups. I would not do that today.”
Another individual who offered testimony was Elyse Gardner, author of the blog “Humane Observer.” After the hearing she said, “I must acknowledge Laura Leigh’s tremendous effort and sacrifice, intelligence and perseverance, in making this stand for all of us. I was profoundly honored to be a part of the testimony supporting the effort to keep watchful eyes informing the public on the treatment of our wild horses and burros.”
When asked for comment on the two day hearing attorney Gordon Cowan quoted the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “The free press is the guardian of the public interest, and the independent judiciary is the guardian of the free press. Thus, courts have a duty to conduct a thorough and searching review of any attempt to restrict public access.” Attorney Cowan also expressed that his witnesses created a great record on this case and he was proud to represent this interest.
Leigh exhausted from testimony that today brought members of the public watching in the gallery to tears stated, “The American public has a right to know how our wild horses and burros are handled by the government. We have a right to get that information through observations and documentation provided by an independent source such as public and press observations. I am eagerly awaiting the Judge’s ruling, as it is critical to the public’s ability to see what is actually happening and the public’s ability to address anything the public finds damaging to their wild horses and burros.”
Federal District Court Judge Larry Hicks said he does not expect to rule on the case until after March.
WHE currently has active Federal litigation addressing inhumane treatment as well as this access case. These cases, investigations and supporting documentation, are supported solely by Wild Horse Education, a registered Nevada non-profit. http://wildhorseeducation.org/
In the below video Laura Leigh is asking Lilli Thomas about the crack down on access and if BLM would even consider placing cameras in areas that they were only recently restricting the public. Video shot by another organization.