by: Peter J. Gallagher
It is an issue we have reported on before (here), but yesterday the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that homeowners’ associations may not entirely ban homeowners from displaying political signs. In Mazdabrook Commons Homeowners' Association v. Khan, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that homeowners' associations are allowed to impose reasonable content-neutral rules (e.g., regulating the size, number, and location) of signs, but cannot ban them outright and cannot, even under the guise of reasonable content-neutral rules, “distinguish among different types of political signs.” This decision is obviously important to community associations, but also has a broader impact because it reiterates the New Jersey Supreme Court’s belief that individual rights identified in the New Jersey Constitution are protected, not against abridgment by the government, but also by certain conduct from private entities.
Jude Wefing, sitting by assignment from the Appellate Division, was the lone dissenter. She criticized the majority for both reaching the constitutional issue in the first place, and for its decision on that issue. In connection with the former, Judge Wefing noted that the dispute between the parties centered primarily on fines related to the homeowners’ growing of a “rose vine” over the homeowners’ association’s objections about the size and placement of the “vine.” (In a footnote, Judge Wefing noted that she referred to the offending plant as a “rose vine” only because the majority did so, even though “[a] rose is a shrub, not a vine,” and thus “the plant in question must have been a climbing rose.”) As a result, the record regarding the issue with the political signs was too sparse, in Judge Wefing’s opinion, to justify reaching the broader constitutional issue.
When it came to the substantive issue, Judge Wefing parted with her colleagues on a more fundamental level:
My colleagues rightly note our nation’s and our state’s commitment to a free and vigorous debate of public questions. I have no quarrel with that commitment; I embrace it. In my judgment, however, individuals are equally entitled to seek shelter from political debate and division. If a group of individuals wish to live in a common-interest community that precludes the posting of signs, political or otherwise, and have agreed freely to do so, and there is no showing of overreaching or coercion, I would adopt the principles enunciated in [the] dissent in the Appellate Division, that these mutually-agreed upon covenants ran with the land, were reasonable, and were enforceable.
Based on these principles, Judge Wefing concluded: “Some may question the choice to avoid political controversy; I simply recognize the right to make that choice.”