Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”     Benjamin Franklin

January 22, 2006

Public Rights vs. Private Contracts

by Doug Mataconis

The Washington Post typically devotes the back pages of its Sunday Outlook section to short articles written by local community activists and others expressing their opinion about various issues of interest to the Metro DC area. This morning, one of those articles, titled My Rights Aren’t A Matter Of Address regarding the alleged threa to individual rights posed by Homeowners Associations or, as the author refers to them Property Owner Associations.

Virginians are proud of the commonwealth’s role in the founding of the country and the formation of the ideals and rights that define us as Americans.

From George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, to Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom to James Madison’s role as the father of the Constitution, Virginians have been at the forefront of declaring and protecting individual rights.

Increasingly, however, these rights are being undermined or stripped by a form of government that the Founders did not foresee: the property owners association (POA).

The Constitution and Virginia law specifically recognize and protect the display of political yard signs on a homeowner’s property, yet a POA can and often does strip people of this right to free speech.

There is one problem with the entire premise of this argument. The Constitutions of the United States and Virginia to protect an individual rights to freedom of speech, but they only protect it against the action of the state. There is no such thing as a right to free speech that applies to private entities. If you are on my property, I have the right to stop you from engaging in speech that would otherwise be protected if you were on your property and I were a police officer. And this is where POA’s come in.

POA’s are entirely a creation of contract. Groups of homeowners come together and form an organization that will accomplish certain goals. Typically, this includes maintaining some standard rules of esthetics for the community, contracting for trash removal, and maintaining property that is owned by the POA members in common rather than by any one person.

When you buy a house that is part of a POA, you agree to certain rules and regulations. These rules can be as mundane as what day you put your trash can out or what color you can paint or front door. Or, they can be as rigid as telling you that you cannot put a sign of any kind in your front yard. In fact, if your front yard is actually POA property, which is true of many townhouse communities here in Northern Virginia, then the property really isn’t yours anyway.

Its evidently clear that the author of the article does not recognize this simple fact:

During holiday seasons, homeowners in my development are encouraged to decorate their homes with, say, Halloween scenes or Christmas decorations. Shouldn’t Election Day be treated as an important holiday for democracy? In my community, putting the issue to a vote has been suggested, but I disagree with this approach. What the Constitution gives, neither my POA nor my neighbors should be able to take away. Moving into a POA-ruled neighborhood should not mean moving out of America.

Property owners associations in Virginia have the legal right to prohibit homeowners from displaying political signs in their own yards. Homeowners are bound by the contracts they must sign to live in POA-regulated neighborhoods, and they agree to sacrifice some rights at the gates to the community. But it should not be within the reach of a POA to establish covenants that deny homeowners a constitutional right. Limitations on the size, number and duration of sign displays might be reasonable, but prohibition is not.

If you don’t like the rules that a particular POA has then you have several options. For one thing, you don’t have to move there to begin with. In Virginia, sellers are legally required to give buyers a copy of the POA rules and buyers are given an opportunity to review those rules and back out of the contract without penalty. If you’re in a POA and you don’t like the rules, or how they are being enforced then get involved in your community and get the rules changed. What you don’t need to do, though, is what the author of the article advocates:

To stop free-speech infringements by POAs, the Virginia General Assembly should follow the example of these states. Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate in Richmond, and a bill should be passed and signed into law. The efforts of our neighborhood’s founding developers to create attractive, homogeneous enclaves should not trump the efforts of the Founders to declare and protect the rights we enjoy as Virginians and as Americans.

Ah yes, if you don’t like the way the world is, just get the government involved and force everyone else to change. Unfortunately, that seems to be becoming the American way.

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