Missoula's never been short on champions. We're not talking about the usual Griz variety, but rather the social-justice kind—those who steadfastly support a cause and defend sacred ground when others have either moved on or never bothered to engage in the good fight. Over the last week, two examples stood out.
We were pleasantly surprised Monday night when the Missoula City Council's now-familiar debate over a proposed DUI ordinance was met not with silence but with criticism. Niki Zupanic, public policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), stood before the council and warned that, by making refusal of drug or alcohol testing a misdemeanor, it's poised to criminalize people for exerting their constitutional rights.
Finally. Maybe we missed something, but aside from a handful of city gadflies we hadn't seen anyone take a firm stand on what we feel is some pretty murky civil liberties territory. Zupanic built her argument around the protection against unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed to every American citizen under the Fourth Amendment. Slapping a $300 fine on anyone refusing to surrender breath or blood seems like a clear enough violation.
"Refusal to waive a constitutional right should not be treated as a criminal act," Zupanic told City Council. "This ordinance removes the presumption of innocence."
Council kicked the ordinance back to committee for more discussion, and that's a good thing. While we're all for creative efforts to curb DUIs, this ordinance is the wrong solution for exactly the reasons Zupanic detailed.
Before Zupanic's remarks, another stand by local activists garnered statewide attention. We're referring, of course, to the group affectionately known as the Otter Creek Five, those plucky University of Montana students who hosted a sit-in at the Land Board's vote to lease Otter Creek coal tracts to Arch Coal. The state approved the $85.8 million deal, but not before the members of Northern Rockies Rising Tide succeeded in drawing much needed attention to the debate.
"It was an absolute success, even though the tracts got leased," said optimistic protester Shelby Cunliffe the day after she and her cohorts were arrested for the Helena demonstration. "The public will still be able to be involved, there will be lots of discussion about it. It'll take years to process, and maybe it won't end up happening."
Many have criticized the Land Board's Otter Creek decisions over the last few months—years, even—and disappointedly watched as the land was consistently offered up to the highest bidder. Perhaps the sit-in will generate a different result in the long run.
And even if it doesn't, we take some solace in knowing another local champion may step up next.