TRENTON, N.J. Homeowners forfeit certain freedoms of speech such as the right to post political signs on their front lawns when they live in a community in which the homeowners' association bans such expression, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The high court ruled that homeowners' association policies are not at odds with the state Constitution's guarantee of free speech.
The case involves residents of the Twin Rivers master planned development in East Windsor who objected to some regulations set by their homeowners' association. About 10,000 people live in the high-density, central New Jersey community of apartments, condos, single-family houses and commercial buildings.
The residents who sued objected to restrictions on the display of political signs, being charged high fees to use the association's community room, and the refusal by the association to allow dissenters' views in the development's newspaper.
The ruling in Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association could affect the more than 1 million New Jersey residents, or nearly 40% of all private homeowners, who live in planned communities and are under community association rules. Some 57 million Americans live in such communities.
"This decision will have an impact within New Jersey and across the country," said Ronald L. Perl, President of the Community Associations Institute (CAI), a national nonprofit that advises homeowner associations.
Lawyers for the residents said the New Jersey Supreme Court was the highest court in the United States to ever hear arguments challenging the authority of community associations.
Perl said lawyers, homeowners' groups and academics watched the case closely to see if the New Jersey Supreme Court widely considered a liberal protector of individual rights would extend free-speech protections to private property.
It did not.
In a unanimous ruling, the high court said community associations can restrict the conduct of their residents so long as the rules are reasonable.
While Perl saw yesterday's ruling as a victory for community groups, the homeowners who sued were clearly was disappointed.
"The court's ruling limits, for more than one million New Jerseyans, democratic rights that all Americans expect," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which represented the homeowners who sued.
However, Jacobs said the ACLU was pleased that the court imposed a reasonableness standard on association restrictions.
"While limiting political signs to one in each window of a home was not unconstitutional, a complete ban on signs within each residence likely would be," she said.
Initially, a state judge backed the homeowners association, ruling that people who bought homes in Twin Rivers knew the rules and had to abide by them. A three-judge appeals panel reversed the ruling last year saying that people in the community are still protected by the state constitution.
The Supreme Court yesterday reinstated the trial court's decision.