ATLANTA — Homeowners in Gwinnett and Cobb County are questioning the changing directives and enforcement surrounding homeowners associations' stance on social justice signs and flags.
The recent denials and requests to remove Black Lives Matter and Pride signs and flags have prompted two Gwinnett homeowners to consider legal action, while both associations point to their rules and fair enforcement.
Angelica Ochoa lives in Gwinnett County’s 2,200-strong home community, Hamilton Mill. In January, she noticed a neighbor with a modified U.S. flag representing Blue Lives Matter. His variance for the flag, which featured a blue stripe outlined in black, had been approved.
“That made me believe that they’d be open to other flags as well — that were not official U.S. flags,” Ochoa said.
By July, Ochoa said she hadn’t heard back on her emailed request, so she submitted a formal written request to display her Black Lives Matter flag, and it was denied.
“I requested permission from the HOA to put out a black banner with white letters that said, uh, said, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and that got denied,” she said.
“I did ask them a lot of questions. Why would they approve that one and not that one? And their story changed a little bit. They were not very consistent in their answers,” Ochoa said.
“One of the answers was that they approved the Blue Lives Matter flag because they didn’t see anything offensive with it,” she continued. “So I said, ‘I don’t want to assume you think a Black Lives Matter flag is offensive. Why would you approve that one and not this one?’ And they said, ‘Well, because that one was a modified U.S. flag. We allow U.S. flags.’”
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That statement confused another neighbor, Joseph Conlon, because his modified Pride U.S. flag that he and his wife hung up when they moved last January was the subject of a removal request. That request also came in July — seven months after the flag was posted. The flag appears similar to the modified Blue Lives Matter flag his and Ochoa’s neighbor hung, except some of the stripes are rainbow-colored.
This caused some confusion.
“I got a notice saying I need to remove the flag,” Conlon said. “It’s not an approved flag.”
Conlon’s modification form, submitted after his notice to remove the Pride flag within ten days, was also denied.
“They said they modified the rules in July, but there’s really no modification other than taking out the word ‘offensive’ that I can find in the change,” Conlon said.
An attorney for the Hamilton Mill Homeowner’s Association declined an on-camera interview but offered a statement outlining the original rule and the modified one, enacted July 30, the month the residents received their denial.
The new rule omits the requirement to remove offensive flags and adds that it is in line with the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005. That means as of the enactment of the new rule, only the U.S. flag in its standard form can fly.
Addressing the reason and timing for the change, the statement includes a Georgia code that empowers HOAs to change and adopt new rules when they want to do so.
As far as the altered Blue Lives Matter U.S. flag goes, that’s still flying at a neighbor’s home. The HOA attorney explained the flag can be displayed, as it was grandfathered into the new rules.
“While the Association cannot now revoke the approval of the American flag with the thin blue line because it was approved in accordance with the prior flag guidelines, only flags that comply with the new guidelines will be approved,” wrote Julie McGhee Howard, the HOA’s attorney.
“Certainly, HOAs can enact reasonable rules for a homeowners association, but when they start picking and choosing the speech that can be expressed, they cannot do that in an arbitrary fashion,” said Jonathan Johnson, an attorney for the Hamilton Mill residents. “And in this case, there is no rational distinction between discriminating between the Black Lives Matter movement sign or flag and the Pride flag as compared to the Blue Lives Matter flag. It is simply discriminating against speech based on its content.”
In another neighborhood, Dr. Cassandra Hollifield received a summer notice from a CMA Associates-managed Acworth community, Bentwater. Hollifield has lived in the swim-golf community for more than a decade.
“Every neighbor that had a Black Lives Matter sign got a written warning that they had to take their sign down, but nobody else,” said Hollifield, who spent weeks asking the HOA management how her small, professionally designed yard sign violated community standards.
“What happened is they made an edit and came back and said that political signs are allowed,” Hollifield said. “Well, this sign, technically, could be a political sign. However, it is not acceptable for the HOA.”
“I’ve seen campaign signs. I’ve seen birthday signs. I’ve seen graduation signs. A sign is a sign,” she continued, saying there was no equitable enforcement of the HOA codes.
A representative for CMA Associates did not reply to an inquiry for Channel 2, but in an email to Hollifield, they denied selectively enforcing a code written around “For sale” and “Garage sale” signage. That code puts limits on how long signage can remain in a yard but does not address other forms of signs.
To avoid liens and fines, all the residents we talked to complied with removal or chose not to display their flags and signs.
“There’s a temptation for people with power to use that power to suppress speech that they don’t agree with and, of course, these homeowners associations do have some power over their residents,” said Johnson, who said he will consider going to court on grounds of free speech and organize a march through Hamilton Mill.
“Obviously, we prefer not to go that far. But if they’re going to persist in suppressing speech, that has to be met strongly by the public, and we’re going to ask the public to help us respond,” he said.
The Georgia Fair Housing Act does get into homeowners' rights under HOA rules, but those are mostly tied to whether the association is intervening with the homeowners' ability to enjoy their property.
Johnson plans to fight the HOA on grounds of free speech.
The attorney for Hamilton Mill argues what the courts have traditionally upheld in similar matters.
“It is a common misconception that the First Amendment right to free speech prevents a community association from regulating or prohibiting signs, broadly including flags, in the community,” McGhee Howard wrote. “Georgia courts, as well as other courts throughout the country, have consistently upheld a community association’s right to prohibit or regulate signs.”
Cox Media Group