Minnehaha County's restrictions on petition circulators violates First Amendment, political group says
Dakotans for Health filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday arguing that the county's policy limits guarantees of core political speech.
SIOUX FALLS — A group pressing to put a proposed amendment to the state constitution to protect a woman’s right to an abortion has sued Minnehaha County over a new policy restricting where people can gather signatures near two county buildings.
Dakotans for Health, Rick Weiland and Adam Weiland filed the suit Wednesday, May 10, in federal court asking for a temporary restraining order to stop enforcement of the new rules.
The group argues that the policy approved by the Minnehaha County Commission on May 2 violates First Amendment protections of free speech by limiting the space where petition circulators can gather signatures for ballot initiatives and requiring them to register.
The policy creates two small rectangular areas, one is in the parking lot of the administration building, about 50 feet west of the main entrance. The other is adjacent to the county courthouse on the south sidewalk but away from the two stairways that lead to the main entrance.
“It’s like an invisible cage,” Rick Weiland said in an interview with Sioux Falls Live on Wednesday.
County Auditor Leah Anderson proposed the restrictions because she said there had been problems, such as people blocking the entrances to the county administration building and courthouse while gathering signatures.
Messages for Anderson were not returned late Wednesday.
County Commissioner Dean Karsky said officials were advised not to comment on the issue because it’s pending litigation.
During the meeting on May 2, Anderson told the commission that while there were First Amendment considerations, the changes were intended to address security concerns.
“We need better control of activities that take place on our campus,” she said.
Dakotans for Health is a ballot committee and advocacy group led by the Weilands. They argue in the filing that the policy violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because placing questions on the ballot represents core political speech.
Dakotans for Health are organizing two petition drives to place questions on the ballot in 2024:
- One is an amendment that would enshrine the principals of Roe v. Wade in the state constitution. This is in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark case, which governed access to abortion since 1973.
- The second is an initiated law that would repeal the state’s sales tax on food.
A constitutional amendment requires 35,017 valid signatures. An initiated law needs 17,509 signatures to get on the ballot.
An opposition group has also formed urging voters not to sign the petitions.
The Life Defense Fund is a ballot question committee led by state Rep. Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids. They’ve launched a campaign called “Decline to Sign,” aimed at keeping the Roe v. Wade amendment from reaching the ballot.
Weiland said he can’t say whether the county’s restrictions are intended to hamper his efforts or not.
“What I don’t understand is that people have been collecting signatures at the county administration building for decades,” he said. “Candidates go there to collect signatures, Republican and Democrat. It’s the busiest public county administration building in the state.”
Weiland is a former candidate for the U.S. Senate and staffer to former Sen. Tom Daschle.
He turned to South Dakota’s initiative and referendum process as a way to influence policy in the state, organizing several successful efforts to place questions on the ballot.
South Dakota was the first state in the nation to adopt the initiative and referendum process, doing so in 1898.
While the state’s lawmakers have been picking away at the voters’ ability to change and initiate law, the public remains supportive, Weiland said.
“These entrenched political interests appear not to like direct democracy and that’s frustrating.”