by: C. John DeSimone, III
When can a homeonwers association restrict the political speech of its unit owners? This is a question that has continued to baffle New Jersey courts ever since the Supreme Court's landmark Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners' Ass'n decision in 2007. In Dublirer v. 2000 Linwood Avenue Owners, Inc. et al, decided August 17, 2011, the Appellate Division took another crack at it, when it evaluated a co-op's restrictions on solicitation, which as applied prevented plaintiff from distributing written materials to other shareholders in the 483 unit building.
The Dublirer court first reaffirmed Twin Rivers to the extent no state action is required for a cause of action under the New Jersey State Constitution. The court then applied the three Schmid factors: "(1) the nature, purposes, and primary use of such private property, generally its 'normal' use, (2) the extent and nature of the public's invitation to use that property, and (3) the purpose of the expressional activity undertaken upon such property in relation to both the private and public use of the property." Under the first factor, like in Twin Rivers, the Dublirer court had no trouble concluding that the co-op was primarily residential and private. Similarly, under the second factor, the Dublirer court also found the public was not invited to use the property.
Because the effect of the solicitation restriction was to inhibit political speech, and specifically speech critical of the co-op's board or speech designed to permit the plaintiff to run against an incumbent board member, the court considered it "political-like speech" and thus concluded it must examine "the fairness of the restrictions imposed by the Association." The Appellate Division first noted that the Association violated its own restrictions several times per year, insofar as the Association distributed written materials under shareholders' doors to save postage. The court also noted that the Association permitted certain charitable organizations to also violate the solicitation restrictions.
The court considered the time, place, and manner of the restrictions. It examined available alternative means of communication and found them lacking; the Association rules prohibited written materials on one's own door or window, distribution of written material anywhere on the premises, contributions to the board's newsletters, and delivery of political-like speech related to board elections by going door-to-door. The plaintiff was left with only the ability to circulate his writings at a semi-annual meeting, posting them on a bulletin board, or using the mail. With respect to speaking, the only apparent permissible outlets were inside a unit after an unsolicited invitation, a common area during an unsolicited conversation, or at the annual meeting. Viewing these restrictions in light of the Board's "exceptions" noted above, the Appellate Division concluded they were too restrictive, reversed summary judgment which had been granted to the Association, and entered judgment in favor of the plaintiff.