The ACLU of Massachusetts today declared an important early victory in a lawsuit challenging illegal and unconstitutional restrictions on political signage at a condominium development in Belchertown. Together with the Northampton law firm Sasson Turnbull Ryan & Hoose, the ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Margery Jess, a resident at the Summer Hill Estates development, who was ordered by trustees to remove a Black Lives Matter sign that she had placed just outside her condominium or face severe financial penalties.
Jess and the trustees reached an agreement in Hampshire County Superior Court, and Judge Richard Carey today approved a preliminary injunction allowing Jess to post her Black Lives Matter sign in the vicinity of her condominium unit until the lawsuit is resolved. The judge also granted the parties additional time to settle the dispute, including by the association potentially amending the rules governing signage at Summer Hill Estates.
“We hope this ruling is instructive for other condominium trusts and homeowners’ associations seeking guidance on residents’ free speech rights with respect to political signage,” said Ruth Bourquin, senior and managing staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “In the midst of a nationwide movement for racial justice and a during an important election season, it’s all the more important that people in the Commonwealth can express their deeply held views without unnecessary restrictions.”
According to the initial complaint, the rules at Summer Hill Estates do not provide any standards to govern the trustees’ exercise of discretion with respect to what expression will be permitted or denied. The complaint alleges that the trustees have wielded this discretion to discriminate based on the content and viewpoint of the messages condominium owners seek to express, in violation of the free speech guarantee in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, and state condominium laws.
The Black Lives Matter sign was prohibited even though other signs, which included expressions of support for military service members, frontline medical workers, and graduating high school seniors, were permitted. The trustees originally justified this disparate treatment by deeming such signs to be “decorations” as opposed to political statements.
“I am so very pleased that I now have the ability to freely express my humanitarian support for Black Lives Matter at my condo complex,” said Jess.
The victory builds on two related ACLU victories for free speech: Last year, a federal district court permanently blocked the City of Holyoke from enforcing its unconstitutional ordinance prohibiting “temporary” lawn signs on private property in the city during three months of the year and prohibiting bumper stickers all year round. The Scituate Board of Selectmen also voted to suspend enforcement of a local ordinance limiting the placement of political signs on private property.