Dakotas Propose New Protest Laws in Response to Pipeline Unrest

(CN) – South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard has proposed new legislation to curb protester activity in the wake of the massive Dakota Access Pipeline protests across the state border in North Dakota.

Gov. Daugaard’s office hopes to strengthen laws, create additional trespassing violations and add extra penalties for protesters who block highways and demonstrate in areas deemed “public safety zones.”

The proposed legislation is a direct response to the disruption experienced during protests in North Dakota when demonstrators blocked highways and ventured onto private property.

“The governor’s goal is to be certain that the state has the authority to protect public safety and private property,” Gov. Daugaard’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, said in an email.  “The governor respects the rights of peaceful protesters and he knows the vast majority are not violent or dangerous.”

The law, if passed, would give the governor the power to declare “public safety zones” if protests were deemed to pose a threat to property or people. Protesting in a designated “public safety zone” could carry the threat of jail time – a minimum of 10 days for a first offense. A second offense within two years would constitute a felony.

The Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota borrowed from other common protest practices, including demonstrators chaining themselves to construction equipment and blocking Highway 1806 outside Mandan, North Dakota.

The North Dakota Legislature is also pushing laws forward that are connected to protest activities, including a measure that makes it illegal for protesters to wear masks and stricter penalties for trespassing and engaging in riots.

In addition, North Dakota lawmakers recently defeated a bill which would have absolved drivers of liability should they “unintentionally” injure or kill a protester blocking a road.

North Dakota Rep. Keith Kempenich (R-Bowman), who introduced the now-defeated legislation, claimed that demonstrating on a road turns a protest into “basically terrorism.”

The proposed South Dakota law would make it a misdemeanor if a protester were to stand on a highway with the intent of stopping traffic.

So far, South Dakota has not seen protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline that are anywhere near the scale of those in North Dakota, although indigenous tribes in the state objected during the pipeline’s permitting process.

Nonetheless, South Dakota was the first state to approve the 1,172-mile pipeline, which runs from the oil fields in North Dakota down to Illinois, and construction of the 274 miles that cross South Dakota is already complete.

Now, the governor has his eye on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is also set to run through the state.

“The reason for bringing this legislation is the protests in North Dakota and the upcoming construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota,” said Venhuizen.  “Governor Daugaard wants to learn from North Dakota’s experience to be prepared.”

The potential legislation echoes South Dakota HB 1145, which was introduced earlier this month.

HB 1145 would have allowed the attorney general to designate “no-go zones” in which protest activities would be forbidden.

Libby Skarin, policy director of the South Dakota ACLU, said in a statement that the bill would have allowed the government to target speech arising out of “community organizing events,” which she saw as “an unconstitutional violation of both the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment as applied to public spaces.”

HB 1145 was ultimately withdrawn at the request of its prime sponsor.

The current “public safety zone” legislation is set to be discussed in a senate committee next week.