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Success Story: "Fighting Words" Doctrine Protects Community Association Residents

Thanks to Bill Goldberg, one of the firm’s  litigation principals who has represented community associations, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals recently applied the “fighting words” doctrine to prevent a resident in a local homeowners association from communicating directly with members of the community because of his history of harassment and intimidation through e-mails and during association meetings. The Court found that the First Amendment did not protect the demeaning and vulgar e-mails and other communications because they were so graphic and explicit that they were “inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.”

While courts are very careful not to restrict free speech rights, the Court noted in reaching this decision that speech can lose First Amendment protection if the speaker presents it in a threatening and harassing manner. In this case, which is the first significant “fighting words” decision in several years, the Court found that the resident’s vulgar speech, coupled with a history of disrupting community meetings, justified the free speech restriction to protect the rights of the other residents who had been the targets of his attacks. The case was significant enough that the Court selected it as a reported decision. It can be found at 187 Md. App. 601, 979 A.2d 260 (2009).

Please note that every case is different, and prior results do not guarantee future success.

This Success Story originally appeared in Lerch, Early & Brewer's Legal Update Winter 2010 issue.

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