CAN YOUR ASSOCIATION SAY “TAKE DOWN THAT SIGN?”

What can be more American than exercising your First Amendment Free Speech rights to campaign and support the candidate of your choice by displaying one of their campaign signs on your front lawn or in your window?  It’s almost unimaginable that in a country founded on the idea of political expression, municipalities and/or community associations would pass laws or rules which would prohibit such displays of patriotism.  But they have.  The question is, can anything be done about it?

In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Missouri city law prohibiting signs at private residences. Margaret Gilleo ran afoul of the law when she placed a 24-by-36-inch sign in her front lawn with the words, “Say No to War in the Persian Gulf, Call Congress Now” and an 8 ½-by-11-inch sign in the second-story window of her home that read, “For Peace in the Gulf.”

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court rejected the ordinance in City of Ladue v. Gilleo, writing that residential yard signs were “a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.” The Court explained:

“Displaying a sign from one’s own residence often carries a message quite distinct from placing the sign someplace else, or conveying the same text or picture by other means. … Residential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute. … Even for the affluent, the added costs in money or time of taking out a newspaper advertisement, handing out leaflets on the street, or standing in front of one’s house with a handheld sign may make the difference between participating and not participating in some public debate.”

So, it certainly stands to reason that if the Court struck down a city’s attempt to prevent someone from displaying a political sign, a community association certainly couldn’t stop someone either right?  Wrong.

For example, a Pennsylvania state court ruled in Midlake on Big Boulder Lake, Condominium Association v. Cappuccio (1996) that a condominium association did not violate the First Amendment by removing political yard signs in accordance with a section of the association’s declaration of rules prohibiting the posting of signs at individual units. The court reasoned that there was no state action, because the association was a private party. The court wrote:

“The courts of this Commonwealth have vigorously defended the rights which are guaranteed to our citizens by both the federal and our Commonwealth’s constitutions. One of the fundamental precepts which we recognize, however, is the individual’s freedom to contractually restrict, or even give up, those rights. The Cappuccios contractually agreed to abide by the provisions in the Declaration at the time of purchase, thereby relinquishing their freedom of speech concerns regarding placing signs on this property.”

So………it all boils down to the fact that when you moved into your community association, you voluntarily and contractually agreed to leave some of your rights at your old home.  If your docs place restrictions on your right to display signs, then you are bound by those restrictions.

One warning to associations however who try to enforce such restrictions.  If your governing documents simply say “No Signs” don’t try to tell someone to remove their political signs if you allow other signs throughout the year like ”For Sale” signs, any signs that celebrate any holidays like ”Merry Christmas” or signs that promote garage or yard sales, because an owner would have an excellent selective enforcement defense.

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