The people of Haines jumped into the national debate prompted by the Citizens United case over what it means to be a person, voting Tuesday to amend the borough charter preamble to proclaim that "artificial entitites" are not people.
One of the leaders of the drive hopes that other communities across the state will follow suit and pressure the Legislature to take a stand.
By a vote of 546-416, voters added this statement to the charter: “We, the people of the Haines Borough, believe the rights set out in the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Alaska, like those in this Charter, are guaranteed only to individual human beings and do not apply to artificial entities.”
The local campaign emerged as a reaction to the 2010 Citizens United case in which the U.S. Supreme Court said corporations have some of the same rights as individuals.
Opposition to the charter amendment came from the Chamber of Commerce and the Chilkoot Indian Association, but one of the backers of the preamble proposition said that many long-time business leaders in Haines also endorsed the measure.
“These are people who are not against the economy and not against corporations and not against corporations making profit,” said Gershon Cohen.
“But they believe, like I believe, that constitutional rights are intended for human beings. And that society can function just fine under that principle.”
Cohen is also a co-founder of Ultimate Civics, a project dedicated to the idea that only humans have inalienable rights under the U.S. Constitution.
He said if corporations are deemed to have constitutional rights, then the people who have power in multiple corporations are granted far more power than individuals.
“This says that the wealthier you are, the more power you have in the society and that’s not supposed to be the way America operates," he said.
Cohen said the Citizens United decision was “actually at the tail end of 130 years of corporate constitutional rights being espoused by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
“This is really the most recent expression of this problem,” he said.
He said that Alaskans from Sitka to Fairbanks are talking about this issue and approaching it through local government resolutions and other techniques.
“The reason I’d like to see this happen in other communities is because this is how we can tell our Legislature that this is an important issue and we want them to do deal with it.”
“We’re the first community in Alaska to change our charter, our constitution, to begin to address the issue,” said Cohen. “For it to go any further there has to be a lot of public process."