Environmental and American Indian activists are suing to erase a new South Dakota law aimed at preventing out-of-state agitators from supporting rioters during this summer’s construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The activists, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota-Western Division, saying the new “riot-boosting” law chills their free speech and might keep legal protesters silent or at home.
“This is one of those laws that is bad for everybody,” said Nick Tilsen, president of NDN Collective, an Indian rights group who is one of the plaintiffs. “It don’t even matter if you’re pro-pipeline. A law like this sets really bad precedent for how the government decides to treat human beings.”
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, has said she hopes the legislation she signed into law last month “shuts down” the massive protests that nearly stymied construction of the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017. She said she believes the protests were funded by out-of-state liberal donors, such as George Soros, and conducted by professional agitators.
The law creates a civil violation called riot boosting — defined as participating in “acts of force or violence” or directing, advising, encouraging or soliciting anyone who participates in such acts. Companion legislation sets up a fund to pay for state, county and local efforts to police pipeline protests.
“Everything that happened here stems from what happened up at Cannonball, North Dakota,” said South Dakota state Sen. John Wiik, who oversaw a committee hearing on the legislation. “To think that someone in New York City or L.A. could pay somebody to go to North Dakota to go and cause a riot and never enter our state, and then we have to put this on the backs of these poorer, western counties is just outrageous.”
But Mr. Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the law’s supporters misunderstand the source of the opposition to the pipeline, which he believes is local, grass-roots and in step with private property interests.
“Think of the person who is a conservative landowner who says, ‘I don’t want this pipeline going through my land,’ and this person voices their opinion on Facebook,” Mr. Tilsen said. “What happens when a whole other group of activists this conservative rancher may not even know turns around and gets into it with the cops? Is that rancher held accountable?”
In court documents, the lawsuit picks at the definition of “riot boosting.”
“Even if a person is not present at an event that began as a peaceful protest but becomes a riot where acts of violence or force occur, that person risks civil liability under the Act by ‘advising’ or ‘encouraging’ those present to ‘Stop the pipeline’ or ‘Give it all you’ve got,’” reads the lawsuit, filed by lead attorney Brendan Johnson.
Several advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club, have joined Mr. Tilsen’s group in the lawsuit, which names as defendants Ms. Noem, state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and the sheriff of a western county where protests are anticipated.
• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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