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Landlords can halt tenant leaflets, rules California high court

By The Associated Press


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SAN FRANCISCO — Tenants of a private apartment complex have no free-speech right to distribute leaflets to fellow residents in their building, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court said the free-speech clause of the California Constitution, which expands upon on the First Amendment, does not give tenants' associations the "right to distribute unsolicited pamphlets in the interior hallways of privately owned apartment buildings from which the general public is excluded."

The case involved the Golden Gateway Center in San Francisco, a complex of 1,254 residential apartments and townhouses. For years, the Golden Gateway Tenants' Association left newsletters at apartments. In 1995, the apartment's management asked the group to limit the number of pamphlets distributed. But after the group refused, the complex's management sued.

"The result was disappointing to us, but the decision is limited and therefore the implications are limited," said Alan Schlosser of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "This definitely doesn't mean that landlords are allowed to violate free-speech rights in other situations."

The decision also will not prevent legislators from adopting other measures granting tenants the right to distribute leaflets, Schlosser said.

"People in California no longer have to travel to Cuba or China if they want to be in a neighborhood where they can be arrested for leafleting their neighbors," said Robert De Vries, attorney for tenants in the case.

The court's decision upheld the privacy rights of tenants, according to apartment complex attorney Glen Zwang.

"The court had to draw a balance between the privacy and property rights of tenants on the one hand and the people who would disturb those property rights on the other hand," Zwang said.

"They decided people who rent units have a right to be left alone in their rooms."

In July 1999, a trial court ruled the tenants' association did not have a federal constitutional right to distribute its leaflets in the apartment complex and that the state constitution also did not guarantee that right.

In a variety of cases cited by the association to bolster its cause, the court found the cases involved private property — a shopping mall, a bank, a doctor's office — and did not apply because they were open to the public. In the apartment case, the building was not open to the public and only residents and guests were allowed inside.

In September 1999, the tenants' association appealed to the state Supreme Court for review.

In concurring with yesterday's decision, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote the act of distributing unsolicited pamphlets is usually done in public places.

The court cited a 1979 California Supreme Court decision in Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center, where the free-speech clause was extended to privately owned shopping centers because they're open to the public.

In yesterday's opinion, the court said "one cannot reasonably have in mind an asserted right to invade the interior hallways of a private business structure, home or apartment complex, in order to proffer an unsolicited flier, placard or petition."

The court pointed out, however, that tenants remain free to communicate with one another in a variety of ways, including speaking with one another in the hallways, phone calls, by letter or e-mail and by posting notices on bulletin boards in laundry rooms. They can even continue to deliver pamphlets to those requesting them.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote that residents of an apartment complex should have the right to communicate freely with each other through door-to-door leaflets.

"Our state Constitution provides that 'every person may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects,'" Werdegar wrote. Tenants should have the "freedom to communicate in writing with each other on their residential premises about matters in their common interests as tenants."


California high court to decide if tenants can distribute leaflets
Case could redefine free-speech rights on private property in California, a subject the court last addressed 20 years ago.  11.30.99


Free Expression on Private Property
Research package for Free Expression on Private Property.  06.20.01

Milwaukee must allow leafleting on car windshields
Deputy city attorney says city may appeal, likely focusing on strict legal standard used by federal judge.  12.13.01