As a community manager, you may have been faced with this situation before or it may emerge for the first time during the next election season. There can be no question that people who display political signs feel strongly about them and that they often resent being required to remove those signs from public display. Yet, the governing documents of community associations often prohibit the public display of signs, including political campaign signs. Is such a prohibition an unconstitutional limit on the right to free speech? The answer may depend upon the facts of the particular case at hand.
In one such case decided in 1996, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a ruling upholding a community association's prohibition on the public display of signs from windows in the case of Midlake on Big Boulder Lake v. Cappaccio. Although unit owners claimed that the prohibition on signs violated their right to free speech, the Court disagreed and ruled in favor of the association. In its decision, the Court observed that "t]he 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 [Unit Owners] 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." Emphasis added.
The decision of the Court in the Midlake case demonstrates the balancing that courts use when the rights of individuals are in direct conflict. In the Midlake case, the balance tipped in favor of the Association's prohibition on signs, while in other cases, the courts may find in favor of the unit owners' right to freedom of speech. The law regarding First Amendment rights is an especially impassioned area of law and when hearing such a case, the courts may be unwilling to adopt a hard and fast rule and may prefer to take each controversy on a case by case basis. In the event that you should have a dispute of this kind arise in your association, you may wish to seek advice tailored specifically to the facts involved in that particular dispute from the association's legal counsel.
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