Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



The concept of the home as a zone of nearly unfettered individual liberty is one of the bedrock principles of American law and culture. Chief among the liberties safeguarded from governmental interference within this zone is freedom of speech, a liberty protected by the First Amendment. While the First Amendment prevents the government from infringing on an individual's speech in many settings, its protection is especially strong in the home. As Justice Stevens wrote in City of Ladue v. Gilleo, any attempt by the government to prohibit certain forms of speech in the home is so antithetical to our common understanding of individual liberty that it is likely to arouse impassioned opposition.

For millions of Americans, however, certain aspects of the protection that the First Amendment typically provides do not extend to their private residences because they live in a community governed by a homeowner association. In the name of property value and aesthetic coherence, many of these associations impose myriad restrictions on their member-homeowners. One common restriction prohibits the display of political signs on a homeowner's private property. While such a regulation from a local municipality would clearly contravene the First Amendment, homeowner associations have not been held to this standard because of their legal status as private entities. Thus, by virtue of living in an association-governed community, millions of Americans have signed away their ability to display political signs on their property, one of the most significant acts of political speech commonly practiced across the nation.

As communities governed by homeowner associations have proliferated in recent years, limitations on the display of political signs have alarmed scholars and homeowners alike and prompted a variety of responses from both groups. Some scholars argue that the status of homeowner associations as purely private entities is not so clear-cut. Given their expanding role in administering local communities and their prevalence in certain regions of the country, homeowner associations undeniably cast a shadow that extends beyond the private realm. Certain commentators characterize homeowner associations as "quasi-governmental organization[s]" and "private governments." Courts, however, have been hesitant to label them as state actors and impose the full breadth of constitutional restrictions that normally attach to such actors.