N.J. homeowners groups must recognize residents' free speech

By The Associated Press,
First Amendment Center Online staff

TRENTON, N.J. — A state appeals court panel ruled yesterday that homeowners associations must recognize residents’ rights to freedom of speech under the New Jersey Constitution.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel stemmed from a case brought by residents of the private Twin Rivers community in East Windsor, who had sued their homeowners association to be able to put political signs on their front lawns, among other things.

Residents’ “rights to engage in expressive exercises … must take precedence over the [association’s] private property interests,” the panel said in its ruling in Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association.

“For the first time anywhere in the United States, an appellate court has ruled that such private communities are ‘constitutional actors’ and must therefore respect their members’ freedom of speech,” said Frank Askin, a Rutgers Law School professor and lead counsel for the Committee for a Better Twin Rivers.

“The Court recognized that just like shopping malls are the new public square, these associations have become and act, for all practical purposes, like municipal entities unto themselves,” Askin said in a statement.

Homeowners in the 10,000-resident Twin Rivers community are also seeking equal access to a newspaper run by the community’s board of trustees and to a community room for meetings for dissidents.

The case had initially been dismissed by a state Superior Court judge. Yesterday’s ruling overturned most of that decision.

“Expressive exercises, especially those bearing upon real and legitimate community issues, should not be silenced or subject to undue limitation because of changes in residential relationships, such as where lifestyle issues are governed or administered by community associations in addition to being regulated by governmental entities,” the ruling said in part.

The appeals panel sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

The outcome of the case is of interest to 50 million Americans who live in communities governed by these associations — and whose states “who may emulate what New Jersey has done,” Askin said.