It is officially campaign season in Georgia. Community associations may be wondering whether homeowners can place political signs in their yards or on common areas to support a particular candidate. Boards may also be questioning how best to address door-to-door solicitors that are canvassing for candidates and/or seeking contributions.
Many homeowners believe that their First Amendment right to free speech prevents an association from restricting political signs and soliciting within the community, but they are incorrect. Constitutional rights, including the right to free speech, are rights guaranteed to citizens by the government. Since community associations are not considered government entities, they are not required to comply with the constitutional requirements imposed on the government. In fact, in Bryan v. MBC Partners, L.P., 246 Ga. App. 549, 541 S.E.2d 124 (Ga. App., 2000), the Georgia Court of Appeals held that an association had the right to prohibit all signs in accordance with its publicly recorded restrictive covenants.
Most associations have some type of limitation on placing signs in the community without approval from the board or architectural control committee. However, there are usually exceptions (e.g., “for sale” signs, security signs, or other similar signs). And although MBC Partners authorizes Georgia community associations to prohibit signs in the community, not all states are in agreement on the issue.
For example, in Mazdabrook Commons Homeowners Ass’n v. Khan, 210 N.J. 482, 46 A.3d 507 (N.J., 2012), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that homeowners had a right to free political speech in the form of signs to support a candidate for public office, and therefore, a complete ban on signs in a community association (other than “for sale” signs) was unconstitutional. While this is not the law in Georgia, it may be safer to err on the side of caution and allow political signs-with certain reasonable restrictions.
The United States Supreme Court has ruled in a number of cases that local governments can regulate political signs by limiting the size of the sign, the number of signs on one lot, the location of the signs, and the amount of time that the signs can be displayed. Those cases also require that the signs be professionally created. Community associations should utilize these regulations as a roadmap for a board resolution or rule that restricts signage. In doing so, the board can both protect the appearance of the community and an individual’s desire to express their political opinions.
But political signs are not the only commonly used campaigning method. Sometimes non-resident visitors go door-to-door promoting a particular candidate or soliciting funds for their campaign.
While some communities install “No Solicitation” signs at their front entrance, doing so may not be sufficient enough to actually prohibit this activity. Georgia law and some local ordinances do not consider political canvassing as “solicitation.” If this is the case in your municipality, a more restrictive sign could be used, one that prohibits solicitation, trespassing, or political/religious canvassing. Even so, while the appellate courts in Georgia support this type of blanket restriction, it may only be effective as to the common areas. Homeowners may have to place signs with this verbiage on their own properties.
In sum, to prepare for the ongoing campaign season, your community should review its signage rules and regulations, as well as the applicable city/county ordinances regarding solicitation. It may make sense to broaden or elaborate on existing signage rules and/or broaden language on a “No Solicitation” sign at the community’s front entry. Most importantly, simply reminding homeowners of the relevant rules and regulations prior to campaign season could lessen conflict and result in a more efficient campaign season overall.