SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On March 22, 2021, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem held an event announcing her new “Defend Title IX Now” coalition to prevent transgender girls from participating in women’s sporting events.

The new coalition was also announced on the state news website in an official release, which included a link to the website. Noem, despite being featured throughout the site as the head of the coalition, has maintained she did not register the domain and held no ownership over.

State news release announcing Noem’s coalition

Now, if an internet user were to visit this same news release and click the link at the bottom or simply type out into their search bar, they will be take to the official campaign site for Noem’s Democratic gubernatorial challenger, Jamie Smith.

An official statement by Smith’s campaign on the purchase of the domain states it was bought in early May 2022 by a friend of the Democrat’s campaign, according to Smith campaign communications director Alex Matson.

“Way back in March, Kristi Noem called a press conference regarding Title IX. I know Title IX compliance officers in our state and none of them have indicated that there was an issue with fairness in South Dakota women’s sports. This website domain is just another example of how it’s all about national politics for Kristi Noem. Instead of focusing on issues that are important to South Dakota, she imported a problem to our state to make some noise in the national media.”

Statement from Jamie Smith via his campaign

The website previously hosted stock photos of children playing sports, along with supportive testimonials from retired athletes such as golfer Nancy Lopez (the only woman featured on the site), who wrote in part, “I support Governor Noem in her efforts to defend Title IX. We must “Protect Fairness for Women in Sports”. When competing in sports, girls (women) should compete against girls (women) and boys (men) should compete against boys (men).

Also featured were millionaire evangelist Franklin Graham, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, as well as former football players Jack Brewer and Herschel Walker, the latter of whom is running for Senate in Georgia.

The site also included a video of Noem discussing the coalition with Glenn Beck.

Aside from these testimonials and a link to an AP News story about the South Dakota legislature declining to take up a special session for the purpose of banning trans girls from playing women’s sports (a goal that was later accomplished in the legislative session when the body passed Senate Bill 46, which Noem signed in February 2022), the only thing on the page was a form asking people to pledge to protect Title IX by providing their names, email addresses, zip code and phone number.

Despite claiming to be formed for the protection of girls, the coalition faced backlash almost immediately. KELOLAND News reported on March 23 that the site, which was registered in Ohio, had used photos of teenage girls from Hudson, Ohio, and other neighboring communities.

By the next day, the photos had been removed, replaced by stock photos. In response to questions about the photos, the following statement was provided by Noem’s communications director Ian Fury.

The website is not run by the State. The web developer obtained the rights to all the photographs. They reflect the very girls that Governor Noem’s coalition is fighting to protect.”

Despite this assertion, the use of the photos was condemned by both an Ohio legislator and the Hudson School District. District leaders stated the photos were used without consent, and represented a misuse of the school’s brand, leading to requests for removal by the district attorney.

Following this initial burst of activity, which included the news release, event and launch of the website, things went quiet. The website and subsequent coalition slipped out of public consciousness and was rarely mentioned publicly by Noem again. The coalition itself never appeared to materialize beyond the unchanged quotes on the website.

KELOLAND News checked up on the website periodically over the ensuing year, checking for updates that never came. The last substantive update to the site came on March 25, 2021, in the form of the testimonials from Graham, Landry and Wilson, just 3 days after the coalition was announced.

That is, until recently.

This lack of activity over the course of the last year was apparently a determining factor in the decision to acquire the domain, according to Matson.

“The domain purchase was to call attention to the fact that Kristi Noem held a press conference and called attention to something she forgot about within a few short weeks. This is how she governs: politics first, issues second. Letting the domain lapse in just a couple months shows the voters how much she really cares about the issue. She didn’t want to do the hard work of crafting policy; she wanted a headline. We simply wanted to point that out,” Matson write via email.

Though Matson implies Noem’s office allowed the domain to lapse, as noted previously, Noem’s office denies having ever had ownership over the domain.