A New Civil Rights Movement Frees Our Communities from Corporate Control
In their latest victory a Pennsylvania Judge holds that corporations are not persons
by Thomas Alan Linzey
To protect small and family farms from industrial factory farming, over a decade ago a handful of Pennsylvania townships stood up to some of the country’s largest agribusiness corporations. Recognizing that the state and federal government, rather than protecting them from factory farms, were in fact forcing them into communities, the townships took the unprecedented step of banning corporate farming within their borders.
Thus began the journey to spark a new civil rights movement – one aimed at elevating the right of communities over the ‘rights’ of corporations to use communities for their own ends.
In a departure from the usual David and Goliath story, with one tiny community battling a giant corporation, today there are over 150 “Davids” in eight states that have followed the lead of those Pennsylvania townships. Community by community, they’ve banned corporate “fracking” for shale gas, factory farming, sludge dumping, large-scale water withdrawals, and industrial-scale energy projects.
However, they’re not intent on simply stopping the immediate threat of fracking or factory farming. Rather, they’re adopting Community Bills of Rights that ban such projects as violations of the community’s right to a sustainable energy and farming future. And to protect those Bills of Rights, they are legislatively overturning a slew of corporate legal doctrines – like corporate ‘personhood’ – that have been concocted over the past century to keep communities from interfering with corporate prerogatives.
These communities believe that if ten thousand other localities do the same, that those tremors will begin to shake loose a new system of law – a system in which courts and legislatures begin to elevate community rights above corporate rights, and thus, begin to liberate cities and towns to build economically and environmentally sustainable communities free from corporate interference.
Last week, a Pennsylvania county court gave this new movement a boost – declaring that corporations are not ‘persons’ under the Pennsylvania Constitution, and therefore, that corporations cannot elevate their ‘private rights’ above the rights of people.
The ruling was delivered in a case brought by several Western Pennsylvania newspapers which sought the release of a sealed settlement agreement between a family claiming to be affected by water contamination from gas fracking, and Range Resources – one of the largest gas extraction corporations in the state. Range Resources argued that unsealing the settlement agreement would violate the corporation’s constitutional right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution.
In a landmark ruling, President Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca of the Washington County Court of Common Pleas denied the corporation’s request on the basis that the Pennsylvania Constitution only protects the rights of people, not business entities.
Judge O’Dell-Seneca cited that Article I of the state Constitution, which reads, “All men are born equally free and independent,” cannot apply to them.
“There are no men or women defendants in the instant case; they are various business entities. ... These are all legal fictions, existing not by natural birth but by operations of state statutes. ... Such business entities cannot have been ‘born equally free and independent,’ because they were not born at all.”
The court records unsealed by the ruling reveal that the gas extraction corporations paid out $750,000 to settle claims of water contamination caused by fracking. The ruling is significant because the fracking companies have relied on secrecy agreements with landowners to hide the environmental and health impacts of gas drilling.
The ruling represents the first crack in the judicial armor that has been so meticulously welded together by major corporations. And it affirms what many communities already know – that change only occurs when people begin to openly question and challenge legal doctrines that have been treated as sacred by most lawyers and judges.
Today, a revolution that places the rights of people and nature above the rights of corporations is in the process of emerging. Will your community join in?