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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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This is very provocative stuff. We know it. We understand that this isn't for everybody, because it takes a lot to explain it, and I, with 30 minutes quite frankly, have really but scratched the surface.

What would we suggest in terms of New York and where you are? And again, it's back to the cautionary tale, and I think the precautionary measures that I would suggest, we would suggest, which is to say, put in place your land use laws to eliminate the use of land for gas extraction, combined with community rights provisions that recognize that you're doing so not only because you acknowledge the authority of the state which has devolved these powers to you, but also because you understand and embrace the rights of the community to adopt laws and have the effect of governing state-chartered corporations in the name of the people. This is about, I believe, putting in place local laws that anticipate the possibility of losing the one tool you do have right now. I wish you had more tools, because in a self-governing democracy, the people wouldn't simply be allowed one last shot at self-governance through land use; it would actually be a broad spectrum of authority understood and recognized by the state.

There's a lot to this, and if you have further questions, I'm happy to answer them. Thanks.

Conway: Thank you, Ben.

Ben, our first question: "What role, or what impact, if any, would a public health officer in a town or the county or public health law have on gas drilling?" Can public health issues be used in a town ordinance to prohibit gas drilling?

Price: I'm not going to presume to speak on New York law specifically. I'm not an attorney to begin with, but New York law -- I'm familiar with it to the degree I am.

When we talk about a bill of rights and these local ordinances, they're not limited in scope. I mean, if it's a matter of retained rights of the people being enumerated locally, and prohibitions being put in place as Pittsburgh did, the prohibition on gas drilling is not simply a free-floating prohibition. It's put in place, and specifically the language of the law says, "This prohibition is intended to protect the rights enumerated in this ordinance." And so, a right to health and not to have health damaged would seem to be a legitimate jumping-off point for prohibition on drilling.

Conway: Ben, you mentioned the Pennsylvania State Constitution. I'm not sure if you can address this, but, "Does New York have the same right to clean water, land, soil, in our state constitution, and can we enact a ban or a bill of rights at the same time? And once a ban or a bill of rights is enacted, can it be overturned once it's passed?"

Price: To my knowledge, the New York Constitution isn't quite as explicit as Pennsylvania's, but it's not based on Pennsylvania's constitution that these ordinances are being drawn up the way they are. We're not claiming that we get our authority or our rights from Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. That right preexists the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The theory of government, in this country at least, going all the way back to the Declaration of Independence -- it declares that governments are instituted -- what for? -- by the people to defend and protect their rights. And when governments no longer act in that manner, then it is not only the right, but it says the duty of people to alter or abolish it.