Clinging to personal freedoms: A South Dakota tradition

It was reported this week in South Dakota that opponents of a smoking ban that was adopted by the state Legislature this past winter have gathered enough signatures to refer the ban to a public vote in November 2010.

That’s just one example of the way in which South Dakotans cling to the ideal of personal freedom, sometimes at their own expense.

Also this week, a separate news story said South Dakota is one of only three states that don’t require children ages 5 through 8 to use booster seats (the other two are Arizona and Florida).

Several months ago, South Dakota’s state Legislature declined to make the state’s seat-belt law a primary one. Making the law primary would mean that law-enforcement officers could pull over a driver for not wearing a seat belt. Currently, because the law is a secondary one, a driver cannot be pulled over for that offense alone.

Years ago, South Dakota put up some of the biggest resistance to raising the drinking age to 21. It took the threat of losing federal highway money to force the state’s hand.

I think the reason South Dakotans so often resist limitations on personal liberties is because we like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals. In our collective mind’s eye, we’re the descendants of hardy pioneers who conquered nature and the odds by building farms and towns on an unforgiving landscape once known as the Great American Desert.

That idea about ourselves is partly an illusion, though. South Dakota is one of the largest per-capita recipients of aid from the federal government — a fact that proves we’re not quite as ruggedly independent as we think we are.

But the idea persists, and in some ways it’s a good thing. South Dakotans are renowned for their work ethic and friendliness, and I think those traits grow naturally out of the notion that we’re on our own out here on the plains and have to work hard and cooperate with each other.

Our ideas about personal liberty can also be harmful. It could be argued that our lax seat-belt law has probably resulted in unnecessary traffic deaths; that our reluctance to prohibit smoking in all public places has probably contributed to more instances of lung cancer; and that our status as one of only three states not requiring booster seats for children ages 5 through 8 is putting children at risk.

Many South Dakotans know all these things and yet still resist even the most minute encroachments on personal liberty. Some would call that attitude backwards. I’d call it stubborn. I get frustrated sometimes by my fellow South Dakotans’ refusal to give ground on certain things, but I also appreciate their independent streak. It’s one of the things that makes South Dakota an interesting place to live.

And besides, it seems like we always come around. I’m betting, for example, that the smoking ban will be upheld. I don’t think South Dakotans are really against the ban; I think they’re just making a statement that no personal freedom should be surrendered easily.

Categories: General News

About Author

Seth Tupper

Seth Tupper was born and raised in South Dakota and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from South Dakota State University in 2001. After college, he worked at a newspaper in Minnesota and then returned to South Dakota in 2003 to join the staff of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, where he is currently the publisher. Seth has won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2007 Outstanding Young Journalist award in the daily newspapers category of the South Dakota Newspaper Association's Better Newspapers Contest. Seth's day-job and freelance work have granted him opportunities to meet hundreds of South Dakotans and travel across much of the state. He also spends a lot of his free time exploring South Dakota's state and national parks, hiking trails and kayak-friendly rivers.

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