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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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What we're suggesting is that communities take seriously their rights -- and members of the communities take seriously the rights. When Pittsburgh adopted their ordinance, they were not the first in Pennsylvania or the first in other states ... By the way, we have worked in communities in New Hampshire, in Maine, in Virginia and elsewhere where local laws have been adopted that stand in the face of state preemption and challenge those laws and say, "The state is acting beyond its authority to deprive the rights of the members of this community by licensing state-chartered corporations to engage in activities that threaten our rights." The ordinances do a couple of other interesting things. They recognize the inalienable rights of natural communities and ecosystems to exist and flourish -- what does that mean? And does it mean that the communities that adopted these ordinances have all gone "enviro," or turned into Druids or something? No, it doesn't mean that.

Most of the communities that have adopted rights-of-nature provisions have been what I would describe as rather conservative, but they understand the real pragmatic reason for doing so. When it comes to protecting your environment -- and yes, we can litigate over anything we want to ... But if you want to sue a corporation for engaging in a harmful activity in your community and you go to court, one of the first things they're going to ask is, "Well, what's your interest in this?" to explore to see if you have standing. Are you actually going to be materially harmed, or have you been materially harmed by this corporate activity? In other words, do you own the land that's been harmed? Has your property value been damaged? Something along those lines. And if the answer is "No, I live on the other side of town but I just didn't want to see our environment destroyed," your case is dismissed.

What if, in your bill of rights, in a community rights ordinance you include a recognition of the rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, and you further recognize that every member of the community has legal standing to advocate for those rights in a court of law? And then the legal relationship in terms of property is not the relevant question. The question is, "Have these rights been violated?"

One other provision, which is a key one ... Sometimes we're told what we're really interested in is just getting rid of corporate rights, and there's bill of rights protections that corporations have been granted.

We have a provision in the ordinance that says corporations that would violate the prohibitions of this law will not be recognized to have the legal protections of the Bill of Rights and similar protections of state law. Why would we do that? It's not just because we want to be nasty. It's because people in our communities are at disadvantages when lawyers for corporations come in and they say, "We're suing; we're bringing a Section 1983 lawsuit, which is a civil rights lawsuit, on behalf of the civil rights of the corporation that are being violated." It's that "takings" thing. "Takings" means that your Fifth Amendment protections of government not to take private property for public use without just compensation are being violated. And a corporation lawyer comes in and claims, "That's exactly what your municipality's doing to us by adopting a local law that says we can't access our minerals, or we can't exercise the lease, or the permit." That's the type of argument we get.

Nullifying that claim is not about stripping rights from corporations; it's about making sure that the rights of the members of the community are understood to be superior to the privileges of state-chartered corporations -- chartered corporations, and they are chartered by the state legislature in the name of the people. The state cannot turn around, not legitimately, and issue permits to them in a way that would have the effect of violating the rights of the very people who chartered the corporation. It's a Frankenstein model. It makes no sense to allow that to stand, and so we do challenge that.