The dispute between Littleton's Kara and Ben Wilkoff and their homeowners' association over a Black Lives Matter flag flying on their property has stirred widespread debate — and it's hardly an isolated incident. There's a similar standoff in Lafayette between residents Kristen and John Freaney and their HOA over a sign that mentions the BLM movement, and the conflict could inspire legislation intended to prevent what the ACLU of Colorado considers to be a violation of free speech.
Kristen Freaney sums up the situation in the most straightforward manner imaginable: "I want to have signage that promotes our values of diversity and inclusion on our own private property."
The message of the sign, seen at the top of this post, touches on several topics. It states: "We Believe Black Lives Matter, No Human Is Illegal, Love Is Love, Women's Rights Are Human Rights, Science Is Real, Water Is Life, Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere."
Such placards are ubiquitous in many parts of metro Denver, and Kristen says they sprouted on several other properties in her neighborhood after the start of protests over the May murder of Minneapolis's George Floyd. The Freaneys put up their sign in June, and even though the others like it in the area slowly disappeared over time, they left theirs in place. But on January 13, they received a letter signed by Shanna Massier on behalf of The Ridge at Cross Creek Homeowners Association; an employee of Brighton's Legacy Management LLC, Massier serves as the HOA's community manager.
Here's an excerpt from the communique:
The Association's Declaration of Covenants states that "no sign of any kind shall be displayed to the public view without the approval of the Architectural Review committee; provided, however, that if the sign is no larger than 3' x 2' it may be displayed on or from a Lot advertising such Lot for sale or lease."
I am reaching out to you today to ask that at this time you remove the sign in your front yard. The Association's Covenant Compliance Policy provides homeowners 30 days to resolve an issue without additional intervention from the Association.
Please note, however, if this matter has not been remedied within the time frame stated above, a penalty may be assessed pursuant to the Association's Covenant Compliance Policy. Each homeowner has the opportunity to address the Board of Directors before a fine is assessed by providing a written request.
The letter doesn't single out the sign's content for concern. But in a subsequent exchange with the Freaneys, Massier stated that the HOA represents "ALL" homeowners and wants to avoid anything that might cause "hard feelings or contention among neighbors."
Like the Wilkoffs, the Freaneys appealed the decision and were denied. But Massier, who has not responded to multiple outreach attempts from Westword, subsequently invited the couple to make their pitch directly to the board during a virtual meeting currently set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 2.
In the meantime, Kristen contacted the ACLU of Colorado, which has a page on its website that seems to have been designed specifically for this situation. "The ACLU of Colorado believes that the right of free speech includes your right, at your own home, to post a sign or fly a flag that expresses your views," its introduction states. "We are investigating complaints that HOAs have objected when residents have displayed pride flags or Black Lives Matter yard signs." The page then poses a pointed question — "Has your homeowners association (HOA) or Metro District sent you a recent violation letter or threatened a fine because you were flying a certain flag or posted a certain sign in your yard?" — and encourages those who answer "Yes" to contact the organization.
ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein sees a bill outlawing these practices as among the possible solutions. "Certainly we are encouraging legislators to step in and make clear that metro districts and HOAs should not have the power to restrict residents from posting a sign or displaying a flag on their own property," he notes.
The wording of potential legislation will be tricky, since it could open the door to messages that are far less loving than the Freaneys' sign — and Kristen recognizes the potential pitfalls. "There may be signs that go up that aren't within my belief system," she concedes. "But overall, my opinion is that we need to protect expression, and the HOA doesn't have the power to limit these types of things."
The history behind the development of some homeowners' associations adds weight to her words. "We need to acknowledge that in many cases, HOAs gained traction in the 1950s and 1960s as a way to legally discriminate — to keep non-white and non-Christian folks from moving into affluent white neighborhoods," Kristen says.
As a result, the order to remove the sign "is broader than just Black Lives Matter," she notes. "The sign also says that 'Love Is Love' and 'Women's Rights are Human Rights.' And as a woman, being told I can't display a sign that that acknowledges my rights as a human. ... Well, that doesn't feel good."
She concludes: "It's not a political sign. It's a human rights sign."
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