South Dakota invented the term “riot boosting” expressly to go after the practice last month, and the state’s governor has used rhetoric echoing Southern segregationists to justify that new law, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The civil rights group’s South Dakota chapter sued the state last week in federal court over three laws the ACLU says target oil pipeline protesters and violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution “by chilling protected speech and failing to adequately describe what speech or conduct could subject protesters and organizations to criminal and civil penalties,” the group said in a news release.
One of the laws is called the Riot Boosting Act.
“If you’re wondering what that means, so is everyone else, including those who want to speak out. And that’s a big problem,” ACLU lawyers Andrew Malone and Vera Eidelman wrote. “The new law gives the state the authority to sue individuals and organizations for ‘riot boosting,’ but it does not clearly describe what speech or conduct it considers to be ‘riot boosting.’”
Malone and Eidelman said the “law is written so broadly that even a tweet encouraging activists to ‘Join a protest to stop the pipeline and give it all you’ve got!’ could be interpreted as ‘riot-boosting’ should a fight break out at the protest.”
Republican Gov. Kirsti Noem offered the laws, referred to as “the Pipeline Package,” as a way for the state to ease construction of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. President Trump signed a new permit for TransCanada’s controversial pipeline last week in hopes of bypassing court setbacks that have stalled the $8 billion project, which would bring oil from Canada into the United States through the Midwest, Bloomberg reports.
Environmental activists and indigenous groups who oppose fossil fuel infrastructure have criticized, protested and tried to block the Dakota Access and Keystone LX pipelines, arguing that they could leak and damage the environment, and that they will contribute to and worsen climate change.
“They’re basically criminalizing anybody who is standing up for their rights and putting their voice out there — and those who support us,” said Nick Tilsen, an Oglala Lakota Nation citizen and president of NDN Collective, an indigenous peoples’ advocacy group, NBC reports.
Noem, a pipeline supporter, defended the laws when she signed two into law in late March.
“I fully support the freedoms of speech and assembly, but we must also have clear expectations and the rule of law,” Noem said in a statement. “My pipeline bills make clear that we will not let rioters control our economic development.”
According to the ACLU, the laws carry penalties of up to 25 years in prison and fines of up to $50,000 for those who violate them.
But Noem suggested the laws don’t violate rights guaranteed under the constitution.
“These bills support constitutional rights while also protecting our people, our counties, our environment, and our state,” she said in a statement. “I’m proud of this proactive approach that will spread the risks associated with pipeline construction, and I’m glad to sign it into law today.”
Noem has blamed protests on “out-of-staters who come in to disrupt and cause undue jeopardy and harm to the people and environment around them” — rhetoric the ACLU said echoes Southern segregationists like George Wallace, who “said racial tensions did not exist in the South ‘except in a very few isolated instances’ caused exclusively by ‘outside agitators.’”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Sierra Club, NDN Collective, the Indigenous Environmental Network and Dakota Rural Action — groups that intend to protest or encourage protests over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline through the state, the ACLU said.
One of the laws Noem signed last week requires companies building pipelines to help cover law enforcement costs related to protests, but the ACLU has not sued over that law, according to the Associated Press.