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Judge blocks Minnehaha County petitioner order as lawsuit continues

Josh Chilson
South Dakota Public Broadcasting

Where are petitioners allowed to advocate their causes? That’s the question at the heart of a lawsuit between Minnehaha County officials and Dakotans for Health, a group currently circulating several petitions.

Among others, one of the petitions being circulated by Dakotans for Health is an effort to restore abortion rights lost after Roe V. Wade was overturned.

Minnehaha County Auditor Leah Anderson laid out the proposed changes to petitioning regulations at a recent county commission meeting.

“In front of the courthouse it would be the area on the sidewalk not in front of the steps – so keeping people away from that traffic flow area," Anderson said. "At the county building it would move people who are gathering signatures away from the doors. The thing we wanted to address the firmest is that they can not come inside the building and stand where the doors are to get the signatures and block the sidewalks.”

Questions were raised about potential consequences of the proposal on free speech rights. Eric Bogue is Minnehaha County deputy state’s attorney. He said this isn’t an effort to stop petitioners.

“You mentioned the three buzzwords, ‘time, place and manner.’ This has been deliberately crafted to make sure we are providing an opportunity and a space for those individuals," Bogue said. "Political activity may not be the best collective terminology on this, but if you look at the beginning of the policy, that is where a lot of different types of activity are collectively referred to in the policy thereafter as political activity.”

While ultimately approved on a 5-0 vote, District Judge Roberto Lange issued a temporary restraining order. That prevents the proposal from taking effect for the time being.

In response, Dakotans for Health issued a statement celebrating the judge’s order. In it, they argue the proposal takes away over 99% of the space petitioners have previously had access to. They say the group will continue to advocate for the First Amendment rights of South Dakotans.

County officials declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering education, healthcare, arts and culture.