First Amendment

Curbs on Condo Signs Upheld

Legal observers were taken aback last year when a New Jersey appellate court extended the state constitution’s free-speech requirements to a private homeowners’ association.

Frank Askin, a law professor at Rutgers-Newark, told the ABA Journal eReport in February 2006 that the decision was the first of its kind at the appellate level.

“It is a Magna Carta for the million-plus residents of such communities in New Jersey and, hopefully, will pave the way for the extension of similar rights to the 50 million Americans who live in such communities across the country, frequently under tyrannical rule,” he said at the time.

Never mind. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled (PDF) yesterday that homeowners’ associations have the right to impose reasonable restrictions on political signs and other constitutionally protected speech, the New York Times reports.

Commenting on yesterday’s ruling, Askin told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that the justices are “pulling back from their stance in taking the lead in extending rights under the state constitution.” The court had previously ruled that private shopping malls are subject to the state constitution.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, however, noted that the decision still paves new ground by refusing to rule out the possibility that residents could sue for an unreasonable measure that restricts speech.

“The New Jersey Supreme Court is the first state high court to recognize that a state constitution’s free speech provisions protect homeowners against unreasonable restrictions on their freedom of communication,” Deborah Jacobs told the Star-Ledger.

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