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When Missoula voters get their ballots in the mail, they will face a choice to send a message to Washington, D.C.

A referendum on the city ballot asks people in Missoula to weigh in on this statement: "The citizens of Missoula, Montana, hereby urge the Montana State Legislature and the United States Congress to amend the United States Constitution to clearly state that corporations are not human beings and do not have the same rights as citizens."

Clearly, people in Missoula alone don't have the authority to demand a change in the U.S. Constitution. But similar resolutions are cropping up around the country, and David Cobb, with Democracy Unlimited, said the calls to strip corporations of constitutional rights are growing louder and are one step toward change.

"First of all, let's recognize that giving the voters the opportunity to vote on the most important issue of our time, corporate power, is no small thing," said Cobb, who is also a member of the Move to Amend Executive Committee and is in Missoula this week to speak on the matter.

Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County, based in Eureka, Calif., seeks to assert democracy over corporations and governments. Move to Amend is a coalition seeking to "end corporate rule" with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The plea in the referendum on the Missoula city ballot coincides with one of the messages reverberating around the country from Occupy Wall Street and the local Occupy Missoula. So do the reasons stated in the Missoula City Council resolution that puts the matter before voters.

"This is one piece of the puzzle of reclaiming our democracy and sort of trying to address some of the institutional barriers we have to civic participation and a good, robust representative democracy," said Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken, who spearheaded the local legislation.

Wolken has been talking with voters about the issue, and she said support for it is overwhelming. The resolution itself states the problems the amendment seeks to address, including that "large corporations' profits and survival are often in direct conflict with the essential needs and rights of human beings."

The movement to amend the U.S. Constitution launched in earnest in January 2010 after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision on Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, overruling two precedents. It stated the government can't ban campaign spending on elections by corporations because that would be regulating speech.

According to the local resolution, the ruling on Citizens United pollutes one foundation of democracy by "rolling back legal limits on corporate spending in the electoral process."

"(The decision) ... allows unlimited corporate spending to influence elections, candidate selection, policy decisions and sway votes," reads the local statement.

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The case, though, also drew a brief from the American Civil Liberties Union in defense of free speech. Among its arguments, the ACLU pleaded the high court not curtail vital speech from organizations such as its own. The organization also argued the outcomes of siding with the defense would be drastic.

"... Its constitutional theory would permit Congress to ban a book as well as a 30-second TV spot if the book satisfied the operative definition of an ‘electioneering communication' and the book's corporate publisher paid for the book with general treasury funds (as it almost certainly would) ... The breadth of that concession is staggering," reads the brief, especially since it's common for such books to come out during campaign season.

The brief continued: "The fact that such books could be banned under the government's theory unless funded by a PAC vividly illustrates why those criteria (to protect speech) are insufficient to safeguard the important First Amendment interests at stake."

Wolken disputes freedom of the press is at stake and said that charge is a "red herring." The First Amendment protecting speech and media is the foundation and came before court decisions.

"We had a really robust, free speech jurisprudence before Citizens United and before corporate personhood. I think we'll have one afterwards," said Wolken, a lawyer herself.

She also said it's the job of the federal courts to carve out necessary exceptions. But it's a balancing act, and the alternative isn't letting corporations pour money into elections without limit.

"Saying the only way to have a free press is by letting corporations have unlimited power to speak in it is to me a little bit ridiculous," she said. "Because that's what they're asking us to believe: The only way we can have a free press is to let corporations have unlimited control of the mouthpiece. To me, that doesn't seem free at all."

In particular, Wolken said she doesn't like to see the way corporations pay to try to push back on voter referendums calling for environmental protections. She said the companies hire actors to tell people "we are costing our neighbors a job."

Voters need to know where those kinds of advertisements are coming from and who is paying for them, she said. Wolken also said studies show the negative ads end up disillusioning women and older voters, who then stay away from the polls.

"People get turned off by that, and I think that's a very high cost to our democracy when you're discouraging people from participating," Wolken said.

If the referendum passes, a copy will be forwarded to U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Rep. Dennis Rehberg, "and all members of the Montana State House and Senate," according to the resolution.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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