Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Federal Court of Appeals To Decide Issue of Press Access To Controversial Seizures of Wild Horses

Straight from the Horse's Heart

Information made available by the Wild Horse Freedom Federation

Wild Horses and Burros Get a Day in Court

WHFF Legal Team, Attorney Bruce Wagman, Plaintiff Laura Leigh, Attorney Gordon Cowan
SAN FRANCISCO (Jan. 10, 2012) – Lawyers for plaintiff Laura Leigh, supported by the Wild Horse Freedom Federation, argued before the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday, in a case that strikes at the heart of the press’ access to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conduct which Leigh has alleged is both illegal and inhumane, and in violation of the federal law intended to protect wild horses on public lands.  A federal judge in a different case had earlier ruled that the BLM’s exclusion of Leigh was a violation of her First Amendment newsgathering rights, but the issue continues to arise each time Leigh tries to document the BLM’s activity.  The appellate court yesterday seemed interested in considering a new standard to gauge press access to such situations.  If the court adopts a new rule, it may enable the press — and the public, which relies on it — to properly observe the tragic elimination of the wild horse from the range, as well as the horses’ ultimate disposition: adoption, sale or death.
The BLM has seized over 130,000 wild horses in its campaign to clear the public lands of these symbols of the American spirit and instead sell grazing and oil and gas rights to commercial interests to use the land which is the wild horses’ historic homeland.  The BLM claims its right under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, and Leigh seeks to document its actions so that all Americans can see what is happening to these living icons of freedom.  Because of the BLM’s restrictions on her ability to document and observe roundups, the conditions of horses in long-term holding, and the records of bulk sales that might land horses in the slaughter pipeline, Leigh brought this suit.
“It’s plain and simple,” said Leigh.  “The BLM is operating in a manner that the public finds unacceptable, and it is not okay to hide it.  This is an area of extreme public interest and the public has a right to the information so that it can reach its own opinion.”
Leigh’s suit has attracted national attention from press and First Amendment groups who have actively supported her position and filed briefs with the court urging that she be given full access to document the removal of the wild horses.
“The bottom line is the BLM obviously has something to hide, because as soon as Ms. Leigh’s first photographs were broadcast to the nation, she was severely restricted in her further ability to document the roundups,” said R.T. Fitch, President of the Wild Horse Freedom Federation, of which Ms. Leigh is Vice President.  “This is a government program, affecting our greatest symbol of American history, and the BLM wants to be able to eliminate and terrorize them under the cover of darkness.  BLM’s conduct flouts the right of the press under the First Amendment, and the right of these horses to be protected.”
The BLM now holds over 45,000+ captured wild horses in long-term holding corrals, and sells others who may end up in rendering plants or slaughtered for human consumption abroad.  Leigh’s suit seeks to establish her ability as a member of the press corps to expose the inherent cruelty and instances of illegality in this federal program.
The suit is Laura Leigh v. Ken Salazar, No. 11-16088

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