News Media Groups Urge Court To Open up Wild-Horse Roundups

September 25, 2013

Ever since "Wild Horse Annie" in the 1950s, free-roaming mustangs on the Western ranges have been a sure-fire story for journalists and a sure-fire headache for federal officials. Now some journalism groups are in court opposing federal efforts to keep them from covering wild-horse roundups.

Animal-rights activist Annie Bronn Johnston raised so much ruckus that Congress in 1959 passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. That law prohibited the poisoning of wild-horse waterholes and the use of motorized vehicles to round them up for sale to slaughterhouses.

Horseback Magazine photojournalist Laura Leigh, hearing reports of mistreatment, sought access to federal land to photograph a roundup in the fall of 2010. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) restricted her access, and she went to court seeking unrestricted access. A federal district court in Nevada rejected her suit, which then went to a complex chain of appeals.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and more than a dozen other journalism groups have been filing friend-of-the-court briefs in support of photojournalists' First Amendment rights to cover government actions.

One of many issues in the case is the BLM's allegation that media restrictions are necessary in the name of "safety." (That issue came up in the California Highway Patrol's recent effort to keep photojournalist Steven Eberhard from covering construction site protests.) RCFP and the other groups argue in their brief that reporters face danger all the time — for example, in war coverage.