We don't usually report on decisions of the New Jersey Supreme Court, but an exception seems in order. That court handed down a decision Thursday that could affect First Amendment rights in the growing number of planned developments and gated communities nationwide. The ruling is Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners' Association.
The unanimous court ruled that regulations restricting freedom of speech adopted by the homeowners association and agreed to by residents (examples: only one sign per lawn, no signs on utility poles) are not unconstitutional -- even if those same regulations would be tossed out if adopted by a city or town. Many such communities have similar rules, and even sillier ones, ostensibly to preserve the aesthetic appeal of the community and to reduce clutter. Some even bar flying flags. The decision appears to be the first by a state Supreme Court on the power of homeowner associations to restrict speech, but may not be the last.
Political scientist Evan McKenzie reports extensively and disapprovingly on the ruling on his Privatopia blog, and notes that Rutgers School of Law prof Frank Askin, who represented residents challenging the rules, sees a silver lining: the New Jersey top court left the door open to future challenges if regulations are particularly censorious.
In the meantime, though, as these communities grow around the nation, it's fair to wonder at what point First Amendment rights will start to wither. As far back as 1946, the Supreme Court said in Marsh v. Alabama that residents of company towns did not surrender their freedoms. "When we balance the Constitutional rights of owners of property against those of the people to enjoy freedom of press and religion, as we must here, we remain mindful of the fact that the latter occupy a preferred position," wrote Justice Hugo Black.