Many of our founding fathers believed so strongly in Freedom of Speech that there was no question it would be first in the Bill of Rights. Curiously, protection of religion was listed first, however I have to believe there were loud arguments that protection of speech should be listed first. For without Free Speech, there would be no religion, no right to peaceably assemble, no right to petition for redress of grievances. Free Speech was so incredibly important it’s doubtful that any other form of government could have come about without it.
Obviously there are limits. Speech must not be used to cause physical injury to others or for sedition or incitement to riot. Even so, the Supreme Court has never been clear on exactly where the limits should be set. One example is pornography. What some see as clearly evil others see as art. One of the earliest attempts at creating a motion picture using an 1880 zoopraxiscope involved a naked lady video that could have tested the bounds of free speech.
My point is this: One of the things demanded by the homeowners’ rights movement is to stop Homeowners Associations from restricting free speech. It’s is a very real problem when HOA officials refuse to allow political signs, bumper stickers, any material that advocates for candidates who are not on the ‘approved’ HOA candidate list. It’s problematic when HOAs pass rules that a Christian may not hold Bible studies in his home. It’s more than annoying when an HOA president can have a birdbath featuring a nude woman, but that same board official outlaws religious statuary.
HOAs were created, among other things, to control bad taste. But if the U.S. Supreme Court is incapable of deciding what’s in bad taste, how is a typical HOA board member any wiser? The HOA gets away with governing taste by claiming it’s a private club or corporation where taste can be anything the board says it is.
Homeowners rights advocates are gradually winning a few 1st Amendment battles here and there. We might even see more such victories in the future. But as we keep increasing our volume alerting legislatures to the outrages of abusive HOAs, and as a tiny segment of our society takes advantage of the chance to be outrageous and obnoxious to neighbors, we’d better get ready to answer a question the U.S. Supreme Court could not: “What are the outer limits of bad taste?”
(the nation’s nastiest neighbor)
(zombie nativity scene barred)
(university outlaws Christmas decorations in the name of diversity)
($500 fine for too many Christmas lights)
(salvation army banned from public property)
Although not located in HOAs, here are two other examples:
One from my original home state of Pennsylvania, offensive holiday display, plus insulting signs, disruptive lights and noise in the middle of the night
Satanic holiday display in Tallahassee, Florida – my current state of residence
What are the limits of the First Amendment?
Some suggestions –
Public speech containing disparaging insults and vulgarity (crossing the line over to bullying and harrassment) vs. criticism based on specific action, inaction, or events
Display of sexual or violent images that would be inappropriate for view by minors, if one can reasonably expect minors to see such display
Any threats to safety, health, or general welfare – such as tripping hazards (wires on sidewalks), overloaded electrical lines (fire hazard), great increase in traffic on roads not designed for heavy traffic.
Encroachment on neighboring properties – including noises and bright lights that cause disturbances for neighbors.
Religious displays are a difficult matter, as evidenced by the Satanic display in Tallahassee. Is Satanism a religion? Or a rejection of religion? Leave it to Florida to create further confusion and controversy.
Certainly, if people have the right to exhibit offensive displays, their neighbors must have equivalent rights to block them from view. Where that is not possible, the rights of the person with the display must be restricted to balance rights to peace and enjoyment of private property among all parties involved.
What puzzles me is why local governments and courts cannot seem to settle at least some of these issues. It is almost as if they are avoiding them. It takes a spine and well-reasoned wisdom to determine where to draw the line, and how to reach compromise.
I guess that explains why local governments are more than willing to allow HOAs to figure out their own rules and restrictions.
Another thought: it may be high time for local governments to have some mental health and social service counselors on staff. A few of these issues involve psychologically imbalanced individuals. Attorneys are not qualified to handle these kinds of problems!