Political winds blow yard signs
Houstonian says civic group, deed rules harm free speech

Interesting Constellation:
HOA President - GOP Judge vs. Homeowner ( Liberal ACLU Attorney )

Article Courtesy of Houston Chronicle
May 30, 2003

The way Michael Skadden sees it, there is little difference between a sign supporting Bill White for mayor and one supporting President Bush. 

Both, the lawyer reasons, are political in nature. 

That's why he is perplexed that his neighborhood association wants him to remove the "Bill White / Get Houston Moving Sign" from his yard. 

At the same time, the southwest Houston neighborhood is dotted with signs that say "We support President Bush and Our Troops." 

The sometimes rancorous relations between individual residents and civic association leadership has sparked debate and even legislation in recent years, pitting individual property rights against efforts to maintain neighborhood character in a city without zoning. 

But Skadden says his quarrel with the civic association is over free speech. 

"It is clear that not only is the association trying to deprive us of our constitutional right to free expression, but also is doing it in a clearly partisan and discriminatory manner," Skadden recently wrote his neighborhood association. 

White, a businessman and former Texas Democratic Party chairman, is running for election this fall. Bush, a Republican, is running for re-election next year. 

What disturbed Skadden was a notice his wife received Tuesday from the Precinct 287 Civic Association telling her to remove the White sign from their house in the Post Oak Manor subdivision. 

The notice had been taped to the front door, Skadden said. 

The letter, from civic association secretary Judith Jones, informed Skadden and his wife that new deed restrictions the neighborhood imposed last year prohibit "temporary signs, such as political signs" from being erected more than 90 days before a political event. 

The signs must be removed within seven days after the event, according to the restrictions. 

"Will you please take down your sign until August 6th?" the notice asked. "Freedom of speech is a fundamental freedom in the United States and we, as Americans, respect that right. Our deed restrictions, however, limit the display of political signs ... 

"This is only fair. Few residents want to look at campaign signs for at least six months -- seven months with a runoff election." 

The Houston mayoral election is Nov. 4. 

Skadden -- a former political candidate and officer in the Houston Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union -- is not used to backing down. 

So he wrote a response, which he taped to the front door of Jones' house. On Thursday, he conducted a news conference in front of his home to complain about what he considered an unconstitutional deed restriction. 

"Political speech is the most important speech protected by the First Amendment," Skadden said. "This is what happens when people try to limit people's freedom of speech, which is exactly what the civic association is trying to do." 

Even if the deed restriction is constitutional, he said, enforcing it against the White signs and not the Bush signs is wrong. 

After the war began in Iraq, the Harris County Republican Party produced thousands of signs supporting Bush and the troops. The party requested a $1 donation for each sign. 

Just because the signs also support American troops in Iraq does not mean they aren't politically motivated, Skadden said. 

Jones, a GOP precinct judge who had a Bush sign up until two weeks ago when she "grew tired of it," said there is no comparison between a sign advocating White for mayor and one supporting Bush. 

"The (Bush sign) doesn't say `Support Bush for re-election,' " Jones said. "If it did, I would say, `Uh-oh.' 

"But it doesn't say that -- it is a statement of general public expression," she said. "I believe I could put a sign in my front yard 370 days a year saying George Bush is a communist, and no one could tell me to take it down." 

Civic association President Linda Kroneman said she will investigate the matter and likely discuss any response with board members when they meet June 9. 

Skadden says he has seen at least one sign in the neighborhood supporting Orlando Sanchez for mayor. 

"The point is, however, that they should all be allowed," Skadden said. 

Jones said she has looked for the Sanchez sign but cannot find it. She said no one else has been asked to remove a sign. 

"He has turned a teeny, tiny ant hill into something big," Jones said of Skadden. "He had the nerve to tell me that the Constitution protects people from people like me."