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South Dakota license plate free speech legal fees

State, county will pay legal fees in free speech case

PIERRE, S.D. – The state will pay the legal bills for a man who won a First Amendment case in federal court that centered on personalized license plates.

Earlier this month, the state of South Dakota agreed to a settlement with Lynn Hart, Flandreau, X.D., who had sued the state over its personalized license plate policy with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota.

The settlement saw the state strike language allowing it to act as a judge of good taste and decency in decisions on whether to approve personalized plates. Instead, the state Division of Motor Vehicles will rely on the Merriam-Webster dictionary to determine if a plate application is too vulgar to affix to a vehicle in South Dakota.

The state will pay just over $78,000 in total to cover the legal fees for Hart and the ACLU of South Dakota, which called the settlement a victory for free speech when it was announced earlier this month.

The document ordering the payment was signed by U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange on Tuesday.

That was also the day the state’s largest county formally signed off on the payment of legal fees in a separate First Amendment Case. Last month, Minnehaha County settled a lawsuit filed by Dakotans for Health, an advocacy group that argued that a county policy restricting the collection of signatures by ballot question petitioners amounted to an unconstitutional restriction of civil rights.

The county had passed a policy that would have boxed petitioners into a small area at the county administration building parking lot, and would have forced them to check in with the county auditor. A judge blocked the policy almost immediately, citing Dakotans for Health’s strong likelihood of victory in the case and the need to forgo restrictive changes amid a prime period for pre-election petition gathering.

The settlement came after the county updated its policy, ditching the check-in requirement and creating a small “zone of non-interference” around the building’s front door. The rest of the sidewalk outside the high-traffic building remains open for petitioners.

On Tuesday, the Minnehaha County Commission voted to authorize the county to pay about $54,800 to Dakotans for Health to cover that organization’s legal fees.

Dakotans for Health also challenged a similar petition-gathering policy in Lawrence County this year. Lawrence County also adjusted its policy in light of the lawsuit, and the advocacy group again asked that the case be dismissed as a result. In that case, Judge Lange signed off on the dismissal of the First Amendment claims on Dec. 14, but noted that Lawrence County “do(es) not agree” that Dakotans for Health is entitled to legal fees.

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