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Brown County Joins GOP War on Petitions, Kicks Circulators and Protestors Out of Courthouse

Senator Michael Rohl’s Republican friends in Brown County unsurprisingly agree with him that direct democracy is evil. The Brown County Commission Tuesday decided to join Minnehaha, Pennington, and Lawrence counties in trying to restrict the ability of citizens to circulate petitions around their courthouse:

Those gathering signatures for ballot measures will no longer be able to do so near entrance areas of the Brown County Courthouse.

County commissioners approved a temporary policy to that effect during their meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 31 in the commission chambers. It’s not on paper yet, but it came at the suggestion of Commissioner Drew Dennert while the State’s Attorney’s Office works on something formal.

Finishing that will probably take a couple weeks, said Ross Aldentaler with the Brown County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Commissioners said their temporary policy took effect immediately. It’s simple and straightforward. Nobody collecting signatures or sharing information about a ballot issue can do so inside the courthouse or courthouse annex entrances. And when outside, they must be at least 10 feet away from any entrance [Scott Waltman, “New Brown County Policy Restricts Gathering Ballot Signatures Near Courthouse Entrances,” Aberdeen Insider via Dakota Scout, 2023.10.31].

Wow—no written policy, no clear notice in the agenda—only the vague “Discuss Limited Public Use Policy” as item #8—but Representative Carl Perry (R-3/Aberdeen) and Representative Brandei Schaefbauer (R-3/Aberdeen) took the mic during the public comment portion of the meeting at the start (see meeting video here) to express their support of the unannounced policy change. Rep. Perry said “The commotion and the polarized groups have caused the police to even be called here.” Evidently the petition blockers led by Perry and Schaefbauer’s District 25 colleague and fellow theocrat Jon Hansen (R-25/Dell Rapids) in their crusade to prevent citizens from petitioning for a public vote in 2024 to write abortion rights into South Dakota’s Constitution are advancing their goal of creating a noisy spectacle around petitioners to scare away signers. Flanked by at least four protestors in blue “Decline to Sign” t-shirts (one is on camera throughout the meeting; the other three file out after the commission approves the policy they sought), Perry repeated the Hansen blockers’ lie that the Roe v. Wade amendment they are trying to prevent the public from discussing and voting on would legalize abortion until birth. Perry also asserted that the amendment is vague—which is ridiculous, as the amendment copies the very clear language of Roe v. Wade that guided South Dakota abortion regulations for 49 years.

At the beginning of formal discussion of the ballot-issue ban (around 15:45 in the video), Commission chairman Duane Sutton said that in 15 years as a commissioner he couldn’t recall anyone setting up their “causes” outside the courthouse. Sutton evidently wasn’t paying—I petitioned regularly on courthouse grounds for initiatives and referenda when I lived in Aberdeen, and I saw other groups doing the same with their ballot measures. Commissioner Sutton thus contributed to the misinformation surrounding adoption of this restriction of First Amendment activities.

State’s attorney Ross Aldentaler acknowledged that the sidewalk around the courthouse is a “traditional public forum”, meaning the county cannot boot petitioners or protestors therefrom. He also reminded the commission that the policy must be “viewpoint neutral”.

One Dave Green rose to express concern that people might trip over a petition gatherer inside the county building and create liability for the county. He also said nothing ticks him off like being asked to sign a petition. He said that letting people circulate petitions in the vestibule could lead to Satan worshippers, Communists, and Palestinians “standing there pushing their agenda”.

Rep. Schaefbauer told the commission she was accused of misinformation and lying by petitioners and that petitioners are not presenting both sides of the issue and that neither petitioners nor blockers can be allowed to silence the other. She claimed she was silenced by petitioners…although I’m hard-pressed to image how anyone, particularly a circulator focused on getting signatures from willing voters, could make Schaefbauer shut up about her fervent anti-abortion beliefs.

Rounding out the Legislative testimony, Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen/Sioux Falls) rose to say “I operate a go-kart track [funny: Al once said he’s not in the go-kart business], but I do read constitutional law.” Novstrup agreed the commission can’t write a policy that restricts content. He noted that Minnehaha County erred by restricting 99.3% of the outdoor space and pushing petitioners 50 feet away from their admin building door. Novstrup agreed with me and with Judge Roberto Lange that 50 feet is “unreasonable”, but he said some smaller setback from the doors would be reasonable.

The commission ignored the key point made by Aldentaler and Novstrup and approved a policy that would restrict citizens from speaking about political issues. The Brown County Commission’s ad hoc policy targets petition circulators and petition protestors but not other speakers. The policy outlaws the blue “Decline to Sign” t-shirts Perry’s fellow petition blockers were wearing and the comments Perry made about the Roe v. Wade amendment itself, but it doesn’t ban citizens from discussing medical issues, economic issues, religious issues (uh oh—the Satan worshippers can still come inside and hand out leaflets!), or other issues not on the ballot.

Perhaps state’s attorney Aldentaler will be able to tighten up the legal leaks in  this ad hoc policy in the next couple weeks. But as it stands, the Brown County Commission has signaled its allegiance to the theocratic Republican Party by throwing possibly unconstitutional restrictions at initiative petitioners.

View the Brown County Commission 2023.10.31, complete with Perry’s and Sutton’s misinformation, right here:


  1. All Mammal 2023-11-02

    The anti-eminent domain landowners were posted up on the stairs of the Peoples’ House with no cancellation outcry or resolution or comprehensive policy enactment. Hypocrisy and caca throats are strong in these ones.

    I think I will print up some adoption forms as the obvious alternative for pro-lifers who get mean over abortion. See how much they really value the Lord’s children. Let us see how many walk the walk and sign up to adopt motherless children, especially the ones women are being forced to have, especially the orphans whose mothers die during childbirth. WWJD?

    Jesus was a far-left extremist and would be an anti-forced birth feminist.

  2. Donald Pay 2023-11-02

    This is just another bunch of would-be autocrats who can’t read the constitution. Petitioning inside courthouses may have some reasonable constraints, and some reasonable setbacks at doors. Those have to set out in policy, not just decreed Putin-style. Law enforcement and the public need to know the rules of the road. I’d violate that dictatorial policy, but that’s me.

    For myself, I’ve never gathered signatures inside a courthouse. I’ve warmed myself up inside the courthouse after gathering signatures. I’ve used the facilities inside courthouses. I’ve had people say they would sign my petition inside the courthouse on cold days, and I declined. My mother was a county employee, so I know petitioners can be disruptive of county work. If there’s a central hallway that doesn’t face working areas, and it’s a good place to gather signatures, I don’t see a problem, but otherwise just stay outside.

    As far as silencing anyone who is trying to block petitioning, circulating an initiative petition is a legislative function, as much as it is a right of a citizen to seek redress of grievances. There is also an administrative function to petition circulation. It is the first line of defense against fraudulent signing of a petition. The process of signature gathering is a sacred government function. While I respect people’s right to free speech, that speech should never be able to interfere in the initiative’s legislative process, nor in the administrative function of a petition circulator. Just as protestors are ushered out of legislative hearings and arrest if they disrupt them, so should petition blockers be arrested if they prevent the legislative function of a petition circulator. Respectful exchanges are fine, but attempts to block signing of petitioners should be treated as violating the civil rights of all citizens.

  3. PWK 2023-11-02

    Regarding the public petition and referendum process, Brown County pheasants have more common sense than the Brown County Commissioners.

  4. Arlo Blundt 2023-11-02

    What can be said is that the Brown County Commissioners are not making any accomadation for the exercise of it’s citizen’s First Amendment Rights, nor their Right to Petition their Government. This is called the “Constitutional Wing” of the Republican Party. Why? I don’t know.

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