Appeals court backs wildlife activist in free speech case



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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Monday ruled in favor of a wildlife activist who said his free speech rights were violated when a sheriff's deputy barred him from watching livestock agents herd wild bison into Yellowstone National Park.

The case dates to 2012, when a Gallatin County deputy issued a misdemeanor citation to activist Anthony Reed alleging he obstructed a peace officer, after Reed initially would not get behind a barricade that was out of sight of the herding operations near West Yellowstone.

Reed's attorney, Rebecca Kay Smith, said the lawsuit was needed after law enforcement officials inside and outside Yellowstone issued citations to multiple activists attempting to document the treatment of the park's wild bison over a span of years.

"The whole reason we have the First Amendment is so that people can observe what the government is doing and provide counter narrative," Smith said. "That applies not just to the government's buffalo operation but in everything the government does."

A state court dismissed the obstruction charge and Reed later sued Gallatin County officials including Sheriff Brian Gootkin for violating his First Amendment rights. He appealed after a lower court sided with the defendants

In Monday's ruling, a three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the lower court judge had wrongly accepted the version of events offered by the sheriff's office. The account included an assertion that the presence of Reed's vehicle on a gravel road near the herding operation presented a safety risk.

"There was no genuine safety or operational reason to exclude him from parking on the gravel road," the panel wrote.

The judges added that Reed's claims should have been presented to a jury and not decided on by U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon. The ruling sends the case back to the district court level, to be assigned to a new judge for a jury trial.

Defense attorney Steven Milch did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

Montana livestock officials restrict when and where Yellowstone bison can migrate to prevent them from spreading the disease brucellosis to cattle.

As part of those restrictions, state and federal officials conduct large-scale hazing operations each spring to drive bison back into the park.

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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at www.twitter.com/matthewbrownap

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