Election season is coming (in case you hadn’t heard) and that means campaign signs. They sprout up twice each year, like a semi-annual plant. These usually come in red or blue. They tend to linger longer than needed, and can easily provoke an argument, especially in a community association. We’re bred to respect free speech, it’s in our governmental DNA. That instinct to protect and defend what we call our “First Amendment rights” is often at odds with the covenants and rules in many community associations, which frequently ban signs of all types, including, and some might say especially, political signs.
So who wins? Does the right to free speech override the covenants and deed restrictions that are the foundation of every community association? The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that its state constitution protected a homeowner’s right to post a political sign in the window of his home. He had been cited by his homeowners association for violating a covenant in the master deed and ordered to remove the signs. The Court ruled that the homeowner’s right to free speech outweighed any of the association’s interest in protecting a uniform aesthetic look to the community and upholding property values. Pennsylvania has no such provision in its state constitution and Pennsylvania courts have ruled that the federal constitution does not prohibit a condominium association from banning signs, including political signs.
First Amendment or Eyesore
Good policies about whether, when and how signs are displayed benefit everyone. Blanket prohibitions may not always be the best, or even the easiest approach. Some signs are practical and needed, like sale signs or even political signs. Maybe the best answer is to craft rules that balance all of the interests. Well thought out rules about when and how signs can be displayed can help everyone on all sides of the debate(s).