It was a routine, under-the-radar case about whether a condominium association must waive its no-pet rules to accommodate residents with emotional-support dogs.
It wound up taking a chomp out of the First Amendment rights of bloggers and online commentators.
In a March 31 opinion, a Philadelphia-based federal appeals court ruled that two neighborhood bloggers could be held liable for “interference with” federally protected fair-housing rights, because their blog posts harassed two of their neighbors for asserting those rights.
As far as can be determined, this is the first case in which a federal court has held that criticism on a blog can constitute a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, which outlaws discrimination based on race, disability or other personal characteristics in the sale or rental of homes.
In addition to direct housing discrimination, the law also prohibits “interference with” the exercise of fair-housing rights. But until now, that “interference” has always meant interference by the landlord himself (for example, by pressuring a tenant for sex) or, in extreme cases, actual physical obstruction by neighbors (in one Florida case, using vehicles to blockade a truck driver trying to move a house into the neighborhood).
Now, in the view of three judges on the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, “interference” can also mean “insulting blog comments.”
The case, Revock v. Cowpet Bay West Condominium Association, takes place in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which (for quaint historical reasons) were assigned to the jurisdiction of the faraway Third Circuit, which is also responsible for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
One of the bloggers, XX, posted nine critical comments over a five-month period, calling on his neighbors to join him in “ostracizing the offenders in every manner at our disposal” and
The court put great weight on the fact that one of the homeowners communicated to the blogger that she was “mortified” to have her personal business aired on his blog — which, in the court’s view, should have put the blogger on notice that his posts were harassment.
The First Amendment problems with the court’s ruling are, or should be, obvious.