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Banning Corporate Personhood: How Communities Are Taking the Law Back from Big Companies

Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund explains how communities can fight corporate power with a new legal weapon.

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We don't generally think about the fact that in many states -- and by the way, in New York as well, the industry is also exempt from local control, local regulation in New York, fortunately, as Helen pointed out, except in terms of land use.

But in terms of industrial activities themselves, they are exempt from local laws. I'd just like to question, what does that word "exempt" mean? It means you don't have to obey laws that everybody else does. It means you're above those laws. It means you're exceptional and you have privileges that no one else in the community, the state or the land has. And that's the position of the gas industry in terms of those ostensibly protective laws. Why would they have to be exempt from them? Maybe it's because they couldn't live up to them; maybe it's because they couldn't actually obey them and actually continue to engage in the industrial activities that they want to be involved in.

So, I mentioned preemption and Dylan's Rule, and what I'm getting at now, too, is a third obstacle that we have to actually creating the kinds of communities that we want to live in, and that is corporate supremacy. As individuals, we don't get exemptions from laws that the rest of our neighbors have to obey. That's not a privilege that we as human beings have. But corporations do, and corporations have been recognized by the courts to share protections of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution as though they were living human beings. Again, I'm not against corporations -- I think they're actually very useful tools.

Folks who benefit from private for-profit corporations benefit also from the fact that they often have limited liability; that the individuals who benefit from those corporations that engage in activities that in general community majorities find to be harmful -- that those individuals benefitting from those harmful activities are not responsible for the harm. That's the joy of a limited liability.

On top of that, they get an extra scoop of rights to come in to your community as a corporation. As individuals, every member of the board of directors of a corporations has individual constitutional protections. As individuals, every investor in a corporation retains those rights -- not the responsibilities for the harms they inflict using that legal tool of the corporation when they enter your community. They hold on to their rights and they aren't responsible for the actions.

Now, I know you're at a good spot here where you can potentially adopt land use laws to actually prohibit ... keep out the drilling for now. You can't use other types of laws because you have been preempted from doing so. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, in Maryland and West Virginia, communities there have no such comparable Home Rule power through land use laws. So, what do they do and what have they begun to do?

Well, in Pittsburg, which is probably the one community that you may have heard of dealing with it in this way, in a community rights forum ... What they've done is, they adopted a law -- and I'll just describe it in general terms. It's not simply an outright prohibition on gas drilling, although it does prohibit gas drilling. That's not where it starts. We refer to them as "community rights laws" because it starts with a local bill of rights that enumerate rights such as the right to local self-government on issues with direct impact on the community -- the assertion that the state does not have the authority to license corporations to engage in activities that actually violate the rights of the members of the community.