I told you the Governor’s office did not want that picture posted. That’s coming from the Governor of this state. So you’re telling me you don’t have respect for that office?
A South Dakota Girls State staffer said those words to Girls State participant Madison Howard on the night of May 30, 2019, in a University of South Dakota dormitory in which Howard, other Girls Staters, and their adult supervisors were staying. The Girls State staffer said those words one minute before confiscating Howard’s Girls Nation certificate and shortly before expelling Howard from Girls State.
“That picture” refers to this photo, taken by Howard earlier that day, before Governor Noem’s lunchtime speech to Girls Staters:
Howard snapped a similar photo of her anti-Trump mug in front of Senator John Thune during his visit to her AP Government class at Roosevelt High School on May 17:
Howard posted both photos on VSCO, where Howard says they drew a fair amount of attention (as far as attention goes in the smartphone age). But apparently, the Noem/mug photo drew the attention of the Governor’s Office itself, with consequences for Howard.
Howard took the above Noem/mug photo before lunch on May 30. Howard took another photo of herself with Noem and a fellow Girls Stater after the Governor’s talk, but Howard says that a Girls State official named Cheryl (and here I take a guess that she means Cheryl Hovorka, American Legion Auxiliary South Dakota Girls State Director/Chairman) approached her shortly after Howard took that second photo and said the Governor’s office did not want Howard to post her photo. Howard thought Cheryl meant that second photo with her friend and Noem. Howard did not post that second photo. She left the first photo online.
Noem left to speak at Boys State in Aberdeen, 260 miles away.
Later that day, at 18:53 CDT, Howard received the following Instagram direct message from “JacksonFerguson21”. Howard did not know this Instagram user, but he appears to be Watertown High School junior Jackson Ferguson, who was attending Boys State in Aberdeen.
Hey I just wanted to let you know that the governors staff saw the picture you put on vsco and they were not happy about it. They are discussing options on what to do right now but they would appreciate it if you took it down because they don’t want to have to do anything about it [Jackson Ferguson, Instagram direct message to Madison Howard, 2019.05.30.]
When Howard asked “jacksonferguson21” to identify himself, he responded as follows:
Ferguson claimed to be the Governor’s son’s friend. He claimed to have been with “them” at Boys State that day when “they” saw the picture—and if Ferguson’s pronouns are consistent, “they” refers to the Governor’s staff. Ferguson claimed that “they can and will press charges if it [the picture]’s not removed.”
To these increasingly remarkable claims, Howard simply responded “they actually can’t press charges” and asserted that the government “can’t really censor me.” Nonetheless, after this online conversation, Howard says she deleted the Noem/mug photo from her VSCO account.
After ten p.m., after the Girls Staters were to retire to their rooms, a counselor came to Howard’s dorm room and told her to grab her Girls Nation certificate and come downstairs where the adults were staying.
Howard recalls entering a room to meet with her immediate counselor (Howard was assigned to the Girls State “city” of Miami, whose counselor the ALA SD Girls State website lists as Brooke Eidsness), “Cheryl” (again, I guess Girls State director Hovorka), and “Tiffany” (ALA SD GS lists Tiffany Newman as its assistant director).
Howard says the following exchange took place at the meeting:
Cheryl: “I told you the Governor’s office did not want that picture posted. That’s coming from the Governor of this state. So you’re telling me you don’t have respect for that office?”
Howard: “I respect the Governor.”
Cheryl: “Her office said they didn’t want it posted, and you put it on social media.”
Howard: “That’s because the government cannot censor me.”
A few seconds after that exchange, one of the adults ordered Howard to surrender the certificate inviting her to interview for Girls Nation, the national event in Washington, DC, to which each Girls State gets to send two outstanding students. Howard says she was one of twelve girls to receive Girls Nation certificates that day around noon. Howard did not see that certificate again. After two minutes of further grilling, Cheryl dismissed Howard with, “We talked about choices, you better start making better ones. Go back to bed.”
Howard returned to her dorm room, but around five to ten minutes later, she was called back downstairs. This time, according to Howard, every Legion Auxiliary leader at Girls State was in the room, seated in a circle. In front of these women, Howard was again interrogated about her photo of Governor Noem and her Trump impeachment mug. Howard defended the photo, saying it was a photo of a public figure and a statement of Howard’s own belief. One woman asked Howard what made her think that action was o.k. Howard cited the Constitution. When asked to show the picture, Howard brought the photo up on her phone (not online, but stored in her phone’s memory), and the women reacted with disgust.
Girls State staff then asked Howard to delete the photo from her phone. Howard refused.
Girls State staff demanded that Howard apologize to every woman in the room, including Howard’s Legion Auxiliary sponsor, who said she had paid $150 so that Howard could attend Girls State. Howard stated an apology.
Then Tiffany told Howard she could consider herself officially dismissed from Girls State.
Howard says she called her dad, who drove to Vermillion from Sioux Falls around midnight. Howard packed her things. She told her friend and debate partner Hope Grismer (with whom she won the Class AA Public Forum State Championship last March, and who was also attending Girls State) that she was being expelled. Then Howard walked down from her dorm room with her counselor, her roommate, and another friend, met her dad, and left Girls State.
As I noted in my discussion of First Amendment rights at Girls State last Sunday, the American Legion Auxiliary is a private organization. Those women can select for and expel from their event pretty much any student they want.
But the story here isn’t that the American Legion Auxiliary expelled a student who failed to follow orders. The story here is that the Governor’s Office was actively searching social media, identifying political content that the Governor’s Office found objectionable, discussing a punitive response to that political content in earshot of a teenage boy not involved in the original speech act, and then expressing its objection to that content to a private organization with the power to punish the student who posted that political content.
Governor Kristi Noem may not be building a fence around the Governor’s Mansion, but Madison Howard’s expulsion from Girls State, like Noem’s anti-protest laws, suggests the Governor’s Office wants a fence around the First Amendment.