Judge rules for resident in Belchertown condo sign dispute

BELCHERTOWN — A resident at an over-55 condominium complex threatened with fines for putting a Black Lives Matter sign outside her home last spring will be allowed to keep the display in place for the time being.

On Friday, Judge Richard J. Carey in Hampshire Superior Court issued a preliminary injunction to Margery Jess of Summer Hill Estates Condominiums, giving her the right to keep the sign in place, without penalty, until a lawsuit against the trustees is settled.

“During the pendency of this action, the defendants shall permit, and not in any way interfere with, the plaintiff posting a Black Lives Matter sign,” Carey wrote in the preliminary injunction, which also allows Jess to move the sign to her front door or window if it can’t remain in the flower bed during the winter months and inclement weather.

The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU of Massachusetts and Luke Ryan of Sasson Turnbull Ryan & Hoose in Northampton.

Carey’s injunction gives time for the parties to settle the dispute and the trustees to potentially amend the rules governing signs at Summer Hill Estates.

“I am so very pleased that I now have the ability to freely express my humanitarian support for Black Lives Matter at my condo complex,” Jess said in a statement issued by the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Frank “Skip” Pudlo, president of the trustees, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Sunday.

Ruth Bourquin, senior and managing staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement that people should be able to express their views without unnecessary restrictions, especially during election season and on issues related to racial justice.

“We hope this ruling is instructive for other condominium trusts and homeowners’ associations seeking guidance on residents’ free speech rights with respect to political signage,” Bourquin said.

The ongoing lawsuit seeks rulings that the condominium rules, as applied by the trustees, violate the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the principle of equitable reasonableness, and that the trustees are in breach of contract, in violation of state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of creed and the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

The lawsuit was filed in October following a decision in early June by trustees that any residents would need written permission for the display of signs or decorations, even though other residents have displayed signs in the same common areas for other reasons, including support for military service members, frontline medical workers and graduating high school seniors.

On May 31, Pudlo sent an email to Jess telling her to take down the sign: “Please remove the sign that you have outside your unit as signs are not allowed per our rules listed in the Declaration of Trust.”

In response, Jess made a formal request to show support for “our fellow Black Americans as they deal with continued institutional racism and police brutality.”

On June 4, trustees threatened the daily fine. “Our decision is to not allow signs with any political intent or connotations. This decision is especially relevant with this being an election year. The other signs shown in your email are not political, and are considered decorations.”

The ACLU previously worked on a case in federal court that last year permanently blocked Holyoke city officials from enforcing its unconstitutional ordinance prohibiting “temporary” lawn signs on private property in the city during the winter months, and prohibiting bumper stickers all year round.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at [email protected]

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