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Civic silliness

Here’s another example of how private entities can restrict your freedom more effectively than the big, evil guvmint can in some situations. A homeowner named Claire Gonzales in Timbergrove Manor (a neighborhood not far from my own – it’s where the Little League team that I coached played its games) has had “Bill White for Mayor” signs removed from her yard, with a note left behind saying that the signs violate Timbergrove deed restrictions.

Gonzales did what citizens do these days. She went online and found the Web site for Timbergrove Manor Civic Club, to which she voluntarily pays dues. There she found the deed restrictions.

“Section 10. No signs, advertisements, political placards, or billboards shall be erected on any Lot,” except for-sale or rent signs, small signs saying the house is protected by a security service, or plaques awarded by a governmental entity.

Gonzales put the sign back up and delivered a lengthy but respectful letter to Randy Klein, the civic club’s president, protesting the deed restriction and asking that the Civic Club inform all residents “that it is illegal to go on someone else’s property to ‘enforce’ a deed restriction.”

Later her sign was stolen. Some neighbors had Orlando Sanchez signs stolen, she said.

But a deed restriction prohibiting political signs is likely no more legal than the once-common deed restrictions prohibiting the sale of houses to persons other than those of the Caucasian persuasion.

In a 1994 decision, City of Ladue v. Gilleo, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down an ordinance prohibiting political signs in a River Oaks-like suburb of St. Louis.

Stephen Schueler, attorney for the civic club, says this case was different because it dealt with an ordinance, not a deed restriction.

“These restrictions are agreed to before they purchase the property,” he said.

In reference to racist deed restrictions, Schueler says, “There are certain deed restrictions that the courts have held are so against public policy that they cannot be enforced.”

He believes the restriction of political signs is not in that category, but it’s not at all clear the Supreme Court would agree.

In a 1971 case, the court said, “Speech on public issues occupies the ‘highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values’ and is entitled to special protection.” Can a person be forced to sign away something so valuable in order to buy a house?

Good question. The right answer is pretty clear to me.

I should note here that I’m not anti-deed restrictions. Our neighborhood has them, and I enthusiastically support them. Our restrictions are there to prevent developers from subdividing lots and building to the property line, which is the only option we have in our zoning-free city. I also don’t object to restricting yard signs to a reasonable degree, but this is a pretty clearcut case of taking a well-intentioned idea way too far. As such, we now need a state entity to come in and enforce the rights that a private entity wants to deny. Don’t you just love irony?

(For an earlier example of private entities restricting your rights, see here. At least Timbergrove appears to be an equal-opportunity sign-remover, unlike some other neighborhoods.)

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3 Comments

  1. Mike says:

    Seems to me thiis woman doesn’t have a leg to stand on. She had ample opportunity to review the deed restrictions prior to purchasing her home. She was also free to purchase a home in a neighborhood that allows political placards. It’s fairly obvious the framers of the deed restrictions intended to exclude the displaying of these signs or they wouldn’t have listed ‘political placards.’

    Let’s be thankful that it doesn’t differentiate between political parties.

    This might be a good thing for this woman. This might motivate her to be more politically active. For starters, she might start a campaign to amend her neighborhoood by-laws. Wouldn’t that be wonderful. Grand politics on a small scale.

    The worst thing she can do is practice civil disobedience and risk paying a fortune in legal fees. Worse yet, she could lose her house like Blevins.

  2. Well, I agree with the statement that you can’t be forced to choose between buying a house and supporting a candidate. I think even the threat of a lawsuit would get that clause rewritten, and I’d bet that the ACLU would be willing to represent pro bono.

  3. Steve Bates says:

    A similar drama was played out with a different homeowners’ association back in May. Unfortunately for that association, they served notice… get this… on a local ACLU attorney, for a Bill White sign in his lawn, while not notifying other homeowners who had “We support President Bush and Our Troops” signs. As the ACLU attorney put it, “The point is, however, that they should all be allowed.” I know the man, and while I haven’t asked him, I’ll bet his Bill White sign did not come down.

    The Houston Chronicle doesn’t have linkable archive search results, but if you are registered, you can search on “John Williams yard signs” and click John Williams’s column from 5/30/2003.

    Mike, you’re just plain wrong about this. You cannot contract away your constitutional right to free speech on political matters: any such provision in a contract would easily be labeled “unconscionable” … and hence unenforceable… in a court test. Courts have ruled this over and over again. About the only contract you can sign that legally binds you to limit your free speech in the political arena is one that enlists you in the U.S. armed forces.