Feb. 8, 2006 – A state court of appeals in New Jersey ruled Tuesday that private residential communities cannot deny homeowners the right to free speech and equal access guaranteed under the state constitution.
The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel stems from a lawsuit filed by five residents against the homeowners association of Twin Rivers, their small, private community.
Originally filed in 2000, the lawsuit stated that homeowners at Twin Rivers were prohibited from displaying political signs on their lawns, had to pay high fees to gain access to a community facility for meetings, were restricted from expressing their views about community governance in the monthly governing-body newsletter, and were subjected to a weighted voting system based on property value.
"It follows that fundamental rights exercises, including free speech, must be protected as fully as they always have been, even where modern societal developments have created new relationships or changed old ones," wrote the court. "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."
Though the circumstances of the lawsuit may seem contained to an internal dispute among Twin Rivers residents, a community of 10,000 households, this weekâ€™s ruling could have larger implications for the millions of Americans living in private communities.
Lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Frank Askin, a Rutgers Law School professor, said this is the first time a court has ruled that private communities are constitutional actors.
"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, adding that he hopes other homeownersâ€™ groups across the country would take the issue to the courts.
Homeowner associations are governed by a private board. Residents regularly pay dues or fees, and can be fined or evicted for breaking association rules on property appearance or maintenance. According to the Community Associations Institute, 54.6 million people lived in private associations in 2005, up from 9.6 million in 1980.