Big government, micro-government, and freedom of political speech

Can your homeowners’ association or subdivision board prevent you from planting a political sign in your front yard? That’s a question that comes up just about every time there’s an election, and 2012 is no exception.

This week, in exurban Wentzville, Missouri, homeowner Don Prinster had to settle for taping his favorite candidate’s sign in his front window, because his subdivision prohibits political yard signs.

Is that okay? It’s a tricky question: Is political expression an over-arching right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, or are yard signs nuisances and clutter that can be regulated by local subdivision associations as a way of keeping up the neighborhood?

At least one local legislator—state representative Kurt Bahr, a Republican from nearby O’Fallon, Missouri—thinks freedom of speech trumps everything. And he’s proposing a bill that would prevent homeowners’ associations from enforcing or adopting bans on political signs.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, similar laws are already in effect in 10 other states. [Of course, it’s hard to know whether laws banning bans are motivated by a deep belief in the Constitution and its guarantee of freedom of expression or by politicians’ needs to get their yard signs out there. But that’s commentary, and I’ll get to more of that later.]

Historical note: Missouri has had a headline-grabbing role in this issue. In 1990, Margaret Gilleo, a homeowner in upscale Ladue, Missouri placed a sign in her front yard to protest the Persian Gulf War. Her action violated Ladue’s ban on all residential political signs. She took her case to court, and in 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ban. But that 1994 ruling pertained only to a city law, not to rules for a privately run subdivision. And that issue remains unsettled, as Don Prinster recently learned.

In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch front-page story about this issue, one member of Prinster’s subdivision board voiced his opposition to a law banning bans on yard signs, saying he doesn’t like it “when big government comes in.”

That’s an intriguing statement on several levels. [Here’s the commentary portion of our program.]  First, he doesn’t like “big government.” In this case, that means the state of Missouri. In the political parlance of 2012, especially that of Republican candidates, “big government” usually refers to the Federal government. Most of the Republican candidates are hell-bent on focusing power in the states, so that “big government” label would seem to fall outside of current Republican dogma. But, okay: that subdivision guy—and I have no factual information as to what his political leanings are—just doesn’t like people bossing him around, and it doesn’t matter where they get their authority.  I get it.

But what makes his statement even more illogical is that he thinks that subdivision “government” is just fine. As a board member, he’s part of something you might call a private, “micro-government.” As a subdivision trustee, he thinks it’s his job to enforce the rules set forth in the subdivision documents—rules initially formulated by a private developer, and possibly amended by members of the homeowners’ association—whether or not they conform to the U.S. Constitution.

The logic is hard to follow. It reminds me of the argument against healthcare reform: People who want “Obamacare” repealed are against big government “interfering” in a person’s healthcare decisions. [The Affordable Care Act doesn’t do that, for the record.] But they don’t realize that, in America’s largely unregulated, privatized healthcare system, healthcare is “governed” by insurance companies who do, in fact, “interfere” with healthcare by denying coverage, steering patients to in-network doctors and hospitals, dropping members when they become sick, and excluding people with pre-existing conditions.  It’s the difference between the federal government protecting your rights, versus a private, for-profit organization deciding what rights you have.

It’s surprising, too, that someone who doesn’t like government would say, “What you do in your yard doesn’t just affect you,” as the subdivision trustee is quoted as saying in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Based on his comment about big-government, I would have expected him to be an individual-liberty and property-rights defender. Instead, he’s demonstrating a sense of community and respect for the common good.  He may be inconsistent, but to me, that’s a hopeful sign. [Pun intended.]

Hey, no one ever said that these issues were simple.