Signs of the Times Political Displays, Free Speech in Co-ops & Condos

Pic by @nicolegabrielle/Twitter

Regardless of one's political affiliation or viewpoints, fact is that the election of Donald Trump to the office of President has inspired what those in the media refer to as 'takes,' from all sides of the political and philosophical spectrum. The ubiquity (and volume) of the discourse has caused politics to spill out of the Beltway and the cable news bubble, often into spaces and interactions that heretofore had been apolitical – or at least not so wildly polarized. Those spaces definitely include residential buildings and associations, and multifamily administrators have had to navigate the new, fraught landscape with caution and prudence.

Several months ago, in the wake of President's Day and the protests that came with it, the New York Post reported on an Upper West Side co-op where many residents were posting political signs in the street-facing windows of their units. While window signs may not seem like an especially disruptive or revolutionary demonstration, displaying them does in fact violate the by-laws of most co-ops and condos. In this particular instance, the situation was resolved when the board reminded the sign-posters about the applicable rules. But given that there seems to be no end in sight to the current tensions, how can boards and management prepare themselves to deal with these types of violations going forward?

Not the Message, But the Means

Before last year's election, disagreements about political expression within condo and co-op communities was mostly a non-issue – so boards can be forgiven if they've not prepared to handle this type of controversy. Similarly, those residents displaying their feelings and allegiances can be excused for believing that they're exercising their constitutionally protected First Amendment right to free expression – but that doesn't mean they're correct.

In almost every case we have encountered, outright political expression is in violation of bylaws, and therefore won't stand in a condo or co-op, no matter how heated a particular election may be. But it's also important to realize that most bylaws prohibiting visible displays aren't designed expressly to limit political speech – they're just there to keep residents from cluttering up their windows and negatively impacting the building's appearance from the street.

“The language may read 'no sign, notice, advertisement or illumination shall be inscribed or exposed on or at any window or other part of the building, except if shall have been approved in writing by the lessor,'” says David Berkey, a partner with Gallet Dreyer & Berkey, LLP.

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