Can My Association Ban Political Signs and Holiday Decorations?

I am frequently asked questions regarding whether something can be banned in an association.  The questions usually come from boards that  want to stop a practice they see getting out of hand, of from homeowners who have received a letter from their association reminding them that a certain activity is prohibited.

The short answer to these questions is almost always: Yes, the association can prohibit that action.  And the reasoning is often the same – the homeowner either agreed to that prohibition when they purchased the unit, or agreed to allow the association to enact rules that prohibit such activity in the future.  Restrictions on the use of a property are most commonly found in the Declaration or Rules and Regulations.  Both of these documents can be amended to add or remove restrictions.

In the fall,  I am most often asked  “can my association ban political signs?”  Again, the simple answer is “Yes, they can ban any sign.”  Homeowners attempt to argue that “free speech” overrules any association rule. They will also point to various local, State or Federal laws that specifically allow posting of political signs at various times of the year.  What these homeowners misunderstand is that the First Amendment simply states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right
of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment restricts the government from impeding on ones ability to freely express themselves.  It does not apply to an association that the individual chose to join and abide by the rules. Likewise, any state law or local ordinance that expressly provides for the ability to post a sign does not apply to an association.  There was an attempt in the 2011-2012 legislative session to enact a law that would make restrictions on displaying political signs void and unenforceable.  The bill was unsuccessful.

Restrictions on signs are not limited to political signs.  Many associations prohibit “for sale,” “for lease,” “for rent,” or “open house” signs. The restrictions can be either a complete ban or a limit on the size, location or duration of the sign.  Restrictions that can be put into place include: no posting of signs in yards; no posting of signs on decks or balconies; no posting of signs in windows; or no posting of signs in a manner that makes them visible from the outside.

Once the political season has ended, the focus turns to the holiday lights and decorations debate.  In associations, the issues extend beyond the colored lights versus white lights and flashing versus non-flashing debates that many households have.  Many homeowners feel they should be allowed to decorate their porches, entryways or trees with holiday lights or ornaments.   Again, like signs, associations have the ability to control such displays.  While some individuals might feel that a motorized Rudolph, complete with light-up nose, is a requirement for a happy holiday, others might believe that simple white lights are all that is needed.  Associations have the ability to decide what is acceptable for a public display, and what is better left behind closed curtains.

In summary, when a homeowner purchases a unit that is part of an association, he/she agrees to abide by the governing documents.  In essence, they are giving up their right to say “this is my house and I will do as I please” and instead are saying “this is my house and I will do as I please, provided that it is not in conflict with the governing documents.”

A version of this article first appeared in the "Ask the Attorney" column (written by Nigel Mendez) in the Minnesota Community Living magazine published by CAI-MN.