PIERRE, S.D. (CN) – Responding to the massive Dakota Access Pipeline protests that unfolded throughout 2016 in North Dakota, South Dakota’s governor has signed into law a bill that would expand the power of his office to curtail protest activities in the state.
Senate Bill 176 allows the governor to set up “public safety zones” in which protest activities can be limited to gatherings of 20 people or less. It also authorizes the state’s Department of Transportation to restrict protester access to highways by prohibiting “stopping, standing or parking” in certain areas.
The law, which is a direct response to the Native American-led massive protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, does not sit well with the state’s nine tribes and other advocates of free speech.
“SB 176 comes dangerously close to restricting constitutional rights,” Remi Bald Eagle, who is in intergovernmental affairs with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said in an interview. “Nowhere in the constitution did it say anything about how many people can assemble peaceably. We also feel that the right of way on roads is for the public, which includes all the freedoms endowed to the public by the bill of rights. The tribe doesn’t support the blocking of traffic, but we do support the people’s right to assemble to the right and left of the road.”
Violating the case-by-case rules set by the state in these “public safety zones” could result in a criminal trespass charge, according to the law.
Bald Eagle expressed his discomfort with the law setting up various classes of misdemeanors for those who violate it. “Which class of misdemeanor is this person going to get versus that person?” he asked. “Those different classes of misdemeanors can definitely lead to schisms along racial lines. When you go to court and you’re Native, you don’t get the same consideration, and we’ve seen that in North Dakota.”
“We’ve all worked so hard to create a better relationship between the tribes and the state of South Dakota and the Great Sioux Nation and the citizens of South Dakota,” Bald Eagle added. “This kind of partisan legislation doesn’t take that into consideration; it creates these animosities that we’ve tried so hard to overcome.”
Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard’s signature on SB 176 on Monday came as no surprise, as the governor’s office was the one to introduce the legislation in February.
“My administration brought this bill to protect those who want to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights, as well as the people who reside in and travel through our state,” Gov. Daugaard said in a statement. “Legislators on both sides of the aisle voted to support this bill and I appreciate their recognition of the urgency of this issue.”
In response to criticism that the government did not properly consult the tribes before passing SB 176, last week Daugaard sent letters to all nine tribal leaders in the state inviting them to round-table discussions about the law.
“It’s typical of the federal government to consider consultation in an ‘after-the-fact’ meeting, which now South Dakota is adopting,” Bald Eagle said of the letters. “It has been so detrimental to government-to-government relations. If you want to have meaningful engagement with the population of the state, then you get their consultation prior.”
Bald Eagle also criticized the state’s secretary of tribal relations, Steve Emery, who conferred with his counterpart in North Dakota but did not meaningfully consult the tribes in his own state. Bald Eagle said most tribal consultation came from Native American legislators who kept their constituents informed about the bill.
The bill passed the state senate at the end of February with a vote of 21-14 and the House last week with a 49-18 vote.
It includes an emergency clause, making it effective immediately, rather than waiting for the typical July 1 start date for new legislation.
Even though construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through South Dakota is already complete, the governor’s office said passage of this law is an important proactive step toward reducing potential disruption from protests when construction on the Keystone XL pipeline begins in the state.
Although South Dakota approved permits for the Keystone XL to run through the state in 2010, former President Barack Obama halted the project nationwide in 2015. President Donald Trump announced his intention to revive the project days after taking office.
Bald Eagle says he expects construction of the Keystone pipeline in the state to attract national attention.
“We need to wake up and see what’s happening in the capital,” he said. “We need to see when and where party politics and corporate interests are stepping on our civil rights as citizens of South Dakota.”