Community Rights

CELDF’s Community Rights work is a paradigm shift, a move away from unsustainable practices that harm communities, and a move towards local self-government.

Community Rights include environmental rights, such as the right to clean air, pure water, and healthy soil; worker rights, such as the right to living wages and equal pay for equal work; rights of nature, such as the right of ecosystems to flourish and evolve; and democratic rights, such as the right of local community self-government, and the right to free and fair elections.

We work with communities that are unwilling to be oppressed by an unjust structure of law that is created by, and favors, the largest economic powers. Together, we are creating a new movement – one that recognizes, secures, and protects the rights of all those living within a community.

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Movement Whose Time Has Come

Today, communities across the country are being told that they don’t have the right to make critical decisions for themselves. They’re told they cannot say “no” to fracking or factory farming. They’re told they cannot say “yes” to sustainable food or energy systems.

Through the Community Rights Movement, communities are working with CELDF to create a structure of law and government of the people, by the people, and for the people. That structure recognizes and protects the inalienable rights of natural and human communities.

We have a democracy problem. We live under a system of laws that doesn’t care what we want as a community.
— Thomas Linzey

how does a community lose itS voice?

  1. State and Federal Preemption – There are laws that allow large corporations to force harmful activities into communities – despite community opposition.
  2. Corporate Privilege – Our structure of law elevates corporate decision-making over community decision-making. Corporations have court-conferred constitutional “rights.” They wield these “rights” against communities to eliminate local efforts that may interfere with industry plans to expand their operations, regardless of the impact to communities and nature.
  3. The Regulatory Fallacy – Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Minerals Management Agency – do not actually protect us. Rather, they regulate the amount of harm that is inflicted on our communities.
  4. Nature as Property – Our legal system grants landowners the right to damage the environment, even though the impact is carried by the entire community.

The Box of Allowable Activism

Examples of a broken system

  • Residents of Grant Township, PA, are told they cannot stop the injection of toxic frack waste into their community. Why? Because the State has pre-empted them from doing so, and the corporation has the “right” to inject.
  • Residents of Spokane, WA, are told they do not have federal Bill of Rights protections on the job because corporate “rights” trump their rights to privacy and to free association.
  • Communities in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley and timber lands of Josephine County are told they cannot say “no” to the contamination of their farmland by genetically modified (GM) seeds and poisoning of their forests and waterways from pesticides. They are finding their own state government protecting these harmful practices, and blocking communities’ efforts to codify sustainability.
  • Communities in New Hampshire face construction of a massive energy transmission project that will cut through the most pristine landscapes of the state. They are told they have no right to stop the project or to establish sustainable energy systems.
  • Communities across the country are told they do not have the authority to demand free and fair elections, police accountability, divestment from fossil fuels, or religious freedom – among many other issues – because these issues run up against state preemptive laws and corporate “rights.”

Community Rights in the american revolution

The very founding of our country was based on an assertion of Community Rights. In the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, the colonists had decided that they could no longer tolerate a distant, monarchical, and oppressive system of government that treated communities on this continent as resources to be plundered.

Many of the grievances outlined in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 are similar to grievances voiced by communities across the nation today.


The colonists had to deal with preemption. The King and British Parliament constantly interfered with the legislative priorities of the local communities. Indeed, the very first grievance laid out in the Declaration of Independence deals with preemption directly:

“HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.”

“He” of course means the King, and the colonists noted that time and time again, the King had interfered with legislation desired by the colonists to protect their health, safety, and welfare.

Nature as Property

The colonists were also outraged over how the King and his loyalists treated the natural environment. It was considered property for profit:

“HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts.”

Corporate Privilege

Corporations, and the privileges bestowed upon them, were of particular concern to the colonists. Chartered corporations, such as the East India Company, were given privileges and protections that legalized their harmful activities all over the world.

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
— Thomas Jefferson

An early American Community Rights protest

The Community Rights solution of 1776

Given the growing injustices facing the colonists, the Declaration of Independence was issued and new governing documents were developed, including the Articles of Confederation and new state constitutions.

While not perfect, these new constitutions took local community self-government seriously. Corporations were brought under the control of the communities that they served, and it was understood that the community was the sole and legitimate source of all governing authority. The first Pennsylvania constitution, ratified in 1776 (not long after the Declaration of Independence), stated:

“WHEREAS all government ought to be instituted and supported for the security and protection of the community as such… and whenever these great ends of government are not obtained, the people have a right, by common consent to change it, and take such measures as to them may appear necessary to promote their safety and happiness.”

The Modern Community Rights Movement

Community Rights secured in this country’s founding have been eroded away over the last two hundred years. Our state and federal constitutions have been hijacked. They are routinely wielded by corporations to force harmful environmental and economic activities into communities that don’t want them.

And yet, over the past decade, and despite overwhelming opposition from large, multinational corporations, the Community Rights secured in our country’s founding are now being reclaimed and asserted by hundreds of municipalities across the country.

Local Community Rights

CELDF works with communities seeking to codify Community Rights. Known as Community Bills of Rights, these laws have been adopted by nearly 200 communities. They protect rights by banning harmful corporate activities ranging from coal mining to factory farms to fracking to the dumping of sewage sludge.

While the issues may be different, the DNA of these laws is the same: the recognition of a right of local community self-government and the right to strengthen the floor of rights protected by state and federal government.

Communities are stepping forward to determine a future of their own making. A future that is not determined by an out-of-area corporation, but rather by the people who live there.

A 2014 Ordinance passed in Grant Township, Indiana County, PA, demonstrates language common to Community Rights laws:

“All residents of Grant Township possess the right to a form of governance where they live which recognizes that all power is inherent in the people and that all free governments are founded on the people’s consent. Use of the municipal corporation “Grant Township” by the people for the making and enforcement of this law shall not be deemed, by any authority, to eliminate, limit, or reduce that sovereign right.”

Grant Township, Public Herald, May 4, 2016

Moving Community Rights to the State Level

Movements begin at the local level. The movement for women’s suffrage didn’t start with the US Supreme Court. Rather, it was a struggle that lasted more than 50 years. It included over 400 local and state laws that recognized the right of women to vote. These local and state laws began to be adopted long before that right was ensconced in the U.S. Constitution with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.

We also learn from prior movements that organizing only at the local level will always leave communities vulnerable to attack from corporations and state and federal government. Part CELDF’s work is to help communities harness the momentum from local, grassroots organizing, and channel that energy into state-based organizations to drive larger structural legal change.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
— R. Buckminster Fuller

CELDF has assisted communities in six states to join together, forming Community Rights Networks (CRNs). These CRNs are hubs, facilitating and amplifying the energy and resources from community organizing. They support growing Community Rights organizing locally, helping communities protect themselves from immediate threats. They also serve to channel the growing energy of these communities into a collective force, working to secure and protect Community Rights at the state level.


CELDF’s partner communities, which make up the CRNs, are enacting local rights-based laws that explicitly demand action at the state and federal levels.  For example, Grant Township, Indiana County, PA’s, Community Bill of Rights was adopted in 2014. It states:

“Through the adoption of this Ordinance, the people of Grant Township call for amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the federal Constitution to recognize a right to local self-government free from governmental preemption and or nullification by corporate ‘rights.’”

These calls echo across states. And our state-level work is rapidly expanding. In 2014, the Colorado Community Rights Network circulated a petition for a state constitutional amendment recognizing the right of Colorado communities to protect their health and safety by prohibiting harmful corporate activities. While corporate challenges interfered with the signature-gathering process, making it difficult to gather the required number of signatures in a short period of time, the Colorado Network is leading signature-gathering efforts for a similar amendment in 2016.

In February 2016, a constitutional amendment for Community Rights was introduced in the New Hampshire legislature. And in March of 2016, the Pennsylvania Community Rights Network rolled out a state constitutional amendment that would recognize the right of citizen initiative. If adopted, it will empower Pennsylvanians to advance Community Rights amendments to protect themselves and create sustainable communities – liberating them from the corporate state legislature.

Moving Community Rights to the National Level

Our Community Rights work has moved to the national level to mobilize local and state Community Rights advancements into a force that will eventually democratize our federal constitution. Formed in 2014, the National Community Rights Network (NCRN) states:

“Without a federally protected right of local, community self-government, rights-  based laws adopted at the local and the state level can be overturned by preemptive federal laws and by federally-anchored corporate constitutional “rights.”

The National Community Rights Network is now, (1) coordinating the work of the state-based Community Rights Networks; (2) raising the profile of community rights-based organizing at the national level; and (3) drafting federal constitutional amendments that recognize and protect the right to community self-government.

Take Action:

Community Rights Begin with You

If you or your community is threatened by corporate or government harms and want to take action to protect your community, contact us and learn how.

You and your community have rights, and CELDF is here to help you fight for them. Click here to learn more about where we work and how you and your community can get involved — or email us at info@celdf.org.

LEarn more through our Community Rights Papers

  1. The Spirit of ‘73 and the Right to Local Self-Government
  2. A Celebration of NIMBY: “Not in my backyard…not in ANY backyard!”
  3. Firing Big Green
  4. American Independence
  5. The Fickleness of Democracy
  6. The Myth of Community Rights
  7. Why Corporate “Rights” Matter
  8. A Touch of Class
  9. Drowning the Clean Water Act in the Constitution’s Bathtub
  10. Paradise Lost
  11. Slaves in all but Name
  12. Preempting Democracy
  13. Breaking the Planet 
  14. Democratic Rights Matter


Fight for a more democratic tomorrow, today.

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