Battle over free speech on Crooked River Ranch
Wilbur West thinks the Biden presidency is a catastrophe, so he expressed those thoughts by prominently displaying a sign in front of his home on Crooked River Ranch. "Biden's catastrophe no end in sight."
Someone complained, and the homeowner's association asked him to take it down.
"I believe they're infringing on my right to free speech," says West. "This is a free country. You should be able to do anything on your property that you want to do."
A couple miles away, Michael Remington lives at the entrance to the Ranch. Almost everyone who lives on the Ranch drives past his home and has seen the life-sized cardboard cutout of former President Donald Trump in a business suit and another what Remington calls "Rambo Trump," with a body-builder physique holding what looks like an assault rifle.
"Those aren't going anywhere," says Remington. But he has removed some flags when the HOA threatened him with fines.
"'First responder's flag' or a 'blue lives matter flag', they call that political," says Remington. "'All lives matter flag'. They call that political."
Remington removed his Trump campaign flags, his "Don't tread on me" flag, and his "No Joe" flag.
"They told me the HOA rules are above my constitutional rights," he says.
Remington says he's thinking about contacting a lawyer to defend his right to free speech, but when Remington and West purchased their homes, they signed an agreement to follow the covenants of the HOA.
Crooked River Ranch has guidelines for the signs homeowners post and the flags they fly.
"It's to keep the clutter at a level that preserves the property values of the owners," says CRR Board Vice President Carl Harbour, "and yet allows them the ability to advertise or express themselves at appropriate times and for appropriate lengths of time."
The election year made for a particularly busy time for the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions committee.
"It was wild last year after the election. Over half of the complaints were for political signs," says Mark Schneider who chairs the CC&R Committee. "We're all volunteers and it takes time to go through the process."
Signs must be a certain size. Political signs may be put up 60 days before an election and must come down three days after the election.
That created a problem this year because of people who denied the presidential election was over.
The board rewrote the rule to say, "Signs must be removed 3 days after the completion of voting in Oregon."
Concerning flags, the rules allow the US Flag, POW/MIA flag, state flag, foreign country, and US military branch of service.
The guidelines don't include the "thin blue line" flag which West flies in support of law enforcement. Some people call it a "blue lives matter" flag.
"They're not making me take that down, are they?" asks West stepping back on his heels.
They haven't asked West to take his flag down, but they have asked others to remove the same flag.
"You can apply with the Architectural Review Committee," says Schneider. "If they approve it, you can keep it up."
Here's where things get tricky. Someone must draw the line between what's appropriate and what is not.
The CC&R Committee acts only in response to complaints.
"We can't be vigilantes," says Schneider. He says the bylaw are ambiguous. The rules read: "Cannot be a nuisance or annoyance to your neighbors."
Sandy Chung, Executive Director of American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, says HOAs have the freedom to regulate signs and flags. "The first amendment addresses state actors not private entities," she says. The HOA must enforce rules consistently, Chung says, and having enforcement based on complaints alone might raise issues. "There may be some people more comfortable complaining than others."
Schneider says he's handled complaints on both sides of the political spectrum. Black Lives Matter signs have exceeded the size limits for signs on the Ranch and taken down.
The committee follows up complaints with a letter. If the person doesn't remove the offending flag or sign within 30 days they risk a fine of typically $250 for a first offense. People who consistently refuse to remove their flags or signs can be fined $500 a month until they comply.
West took his signs down and replaced them with a theme he hopes gets no complaints, "Stand up for America."
Remington has another approach. "I just take stuff down, wait a couple of weeks and then put it back up."
"We take a more aggressive stance against more vulgar signs," says Harbour.
And here we get agreement from West and Remington as well, who both lean toward provocative messages.
West does not want to see profane language or depictions in his neighborhood.
"Families live here," says Remington. "We don't want kids to see stuff like that."
Everyone, it seems, draws a line somewhere.
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