ACLU Doubles Down Against Pennington County Sheriff

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline has been a controversial undertaking. A number of citizens in the United States and Canada have protested this pipeline’s construction. One of the widest publicized protests occurred in South Dakota, attracting international attention to this issue.

South Dakota’s Republican Governor Kristi Noem and Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg signed a pipeline protest bill package in March. This occurred before TransCanada’s anticipated start date for Keystone XL pipeline construction. One controversial facet of this bill package is the application of civil penalties for ‘riot boosting.’

Riot boosting is broadly defined as encouraging protesters to engage in violent acts as part of the protest. However, on March 28 the ACLU filed suit arguing that this bill package, as well as two preexisting riot statutes, are too broad and vaguely defined. The union alleges that it is unconstitutional and in violation of First Amendment rights to free speech including protests.

At the center of this argument stands Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom. He is a defendant of the case who has filed a motion on April 23 to be dismissed from the proceedings. According to Sheriff Thom, the anti-riot and pipeline protest laws are applied at the state and not at the county level. As sheriff of Pennington County, he argues that this legal question is outside of his jurisdiction and that he should not be involved in this case.

The ACLU has responded that Sheriff Thom is responsible for enforcement of the laws at his discretion. Multiple Keystone XL protests are expected to occur during construction. Since most of these protests are anticipated in Pennington County, it is likely that Sheriff Thom will be involved in enforcing the riot boosting bill. Therefore, the ACLU argues that the Sheriff is an appropriate defense of the suit.

Sheriff Kevin Thom is not the only one who objects to the ACLU’s lawsuit. Both Governor Kristi Noem and Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg have requested a dismissal of the suit. They argue that the laws that they have passed are, in fact, fully constitutional.