The New Jersey Supreme Court’s December 3, 2014 decision in Dublirer v. 2000 Linwood Avenue Owners, Inc., et al., extended the free speech rights of those living within private common-interest communities relating to political speech and the right to distribute political materials therein.
In Dublirer, the Court addressed an action filed by a resident in a high-rise private cooperative apartment building (the “Co-op”) against the Co-op’s board of directors (the “Board”) who prevented the resident from distributing leaflets under his neighbors’ doors criticizing the Co-op’s governance and promoting his own candidacy for the Board. The Board’s rule banned the distribution of all written materials “anywhere upon the premises without written authorization of the Board of Directors.”
The Court noted that an essential element of living within a co-op community is the residents’ agreement to be bound by the co-op’s by-laws and rules. However, while the Board’s stated purpose for barring the distribution of such written materials was “to preserve the residents’ quiet enjoyment of their apartment and to cut down on litter pollution,” the Court found that the residents’ rights in speaking out about the governance of their community outweighed the “minimal intrusion [of] when a leaflet is placed under a neighbor’s apartment door.” The residents of the Co-op were not outsiders, and thus had both property and free speech rights within the Co-op. The Court developed a test for such restrictions, holding that courts “should focus on the purpose of the expressional activity undertaken in relation to the property’s use, and should also consider the general balancing of expressional rights and private property rights.”
The Dublirer Court found that the resident’s leaflets were akin to political speech, thus affording it the highest Constitutional protection. The Court took into account the potentially intrusive nature of the resident’s leaflets, noting that here, the resident “did not seek approval to use a bullhorn or a loudspeaker, or to erect a large sign in the lobby,” and that “residents could simply ignore or throw away any literature placed under their doors.” In considering the reasonableness of the Board’s restriction, the Court found no “convenient, feasible, and alternative means” for engaging in the same speech, finding that the resident had sought “the most direct and least expensive way possible,” and that there were not substantially similar alternatives for communicating the same message to his neighbors.
The Court held that “[s]peech about matters of public interest, and about the qualifications of people who hold positions of trust, lies at the heart of our societal values,” and thus is entitled to protection whether or not that speech involves those who hold positions of trust within private common-interest communities.
Similar common-interest communities, such as condominium associations, should be aware of the Dublirer holding and potential claims by residents against their boards. The Court’s characterization of certain types of resident speech as protected political speech requires particular focus, as the Court stated that such should be afforded the greatest protection. However, the Court did not find that a board of directors in common-interest communities could never impose any speech restrictions, noting that the Board could have adopted “reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions to serve the community’s interest.” Such restrictions, however, must be designed to promote the quiet enjoyment of the residents of the community, “without unreasonably interfering with free speech rights.” Thus, in designing by-laws and house rules related to speech, boards must take into account the practical effect of any such proposed limitations on speech and the effect it would have on the residents, paying particular attention to the availability for substantially similar (and cost effective) mechanisms for the residents to accomplish a similar result.
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