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I have posted a political sign on the front lawn of a house I am renting. The landlord has told me that if I don’t remove this sign, I will be liable for any vandalism occurring to the house, as he believes the sign might make the property a target. Will I be legally liable? What if I respond to his communication and accept it?

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    Does your lease agreement say anything regarding posting signs, advertisements etc on the property? Also what state are you in? Here's a NYT article just fyi – BruceWayne Jun 12 at 1:24
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    I just wonder whether, if you owned the house and lived there, you would still be putting up the sign... – Tim Jun 13 at 10:13
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    The title should probably be "Can I be liable for vandalism caused by a political sign I put on property I'm renting?" The current title can be interpreted as the sign itself being vandalism, which doesn't reflect what the question is asking. (I would propose an edit, but one is already pending) – NotThatGuy Jun 14 at 17:39
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The only avenue for tenant liability would be if the tenant is responsible for the damage. The courts have not assigned responsibility for damage resulting from other people's disagreement with a political expression to the person expressing the viewpoint. You are generally free to peacefully express yourself, and as a renter this would be part of your right of "quiet enjoyment of the premise". If there is a lease condition that says "no political signs", then maybe that's a violation of the contract, but that might also be an illegal term in your state or city (under landlord-tenant laws).

Since you have the right to express your opinion, the courts must respect that right and not deem that engaging in political expression negates your other rights. In general, if someone commits a crime, the law does not say "but you take the blame if you express your political opinion".

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    So, say I am a landlord and have a tenant who puts a sign in the yard saying "I think you should vandalize this house!" (or, any sign which is known to incite vandalism), and someone does it, am I still liable for the damages? – GrumpyCrouton Jun 12 at 11:57
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    @GrumpyCrouton I'm not a legal expert, but I think such a sign would be considered incitement, which is a separate crime in and of itself. – Nzall Jun 12 at 12:35
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    @Nzall What's the difference between such a sign and a sign that is considered "political" but is also known to incite violence/vandalism? – GrumpyCrouton Jun 12 at 12:47
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    @GrumpyCrouton Hmm, I'm not sure, actually. I looked into it further and apparently incitement is protected in some cases. Read Brandenburg v. Ohio for more info: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brandenburg_v._Ohio – Nzall Jun 12 at 13:04
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    @GrumpyCrouton A direct statement requesting that someone damage the property would make you a conspirator with the vandal and a party to the damage. – tbrookside Jun 12 at 19:49
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You will not be legally liable. You are not responsible for other people's irrational or even violent reactions to your protected speech. If you could be held liable for other people's irrational or violent reactions to your peaceful speech, then exactly what your landlord is trying to do here could happen. People could threaten violence or harm as a way to chill other people's speech.

Of course, people can still threaten violence. And people fearing that violence may choose to silence themselves out of fear. But you cannot use the government to help scare people into silence. Government courts will not hold you liable because, if they could, that would chill your speech, and that's not a business the government is allowed to be in.

You may prefer not to say anything to your landlord and just leave the sign up. If, for some reason, you want to explain this to your landlord, I'd try something like: "As I'm sure you are aware, the government cannot punish me for exercising my First Amendment rights. You may not be aware, however, that any law or court that made me liable for vandalism resulting from the sign would be the government punishing me for exercising my First Amendment right. You may wish to consult a lawyer to confirm this if you don't want to make threats based on a misunderstanding of the law."

I am not a lawyer, and it's certainly possible that I am incorrect. You may wish to consult a lawyer to get advice that you can actually rely on.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dale M Jul 29 at 0:12
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There's a material question here, but you worsen your situation only slightly by acknowledging receipt of the communication, and you worsen it greatly by stating in writing that you agree with the communication. (I don't know what you mean by "accept").

You're responsible only to the extent that you incite violence. This requires you be attuned to what is going on in your community.

If you know a political protest is scheduled quite nearby, and you know there's a strong chance of rowdy or violent behavior... and you decide this is a great time to put up political signs that are really going to cheese off the protesters... then yeah, you knew or should have reasonably known this would invite vandalism. I can't say what will happen since this happens so rarely, there's very little case law on the subject. But I can say if the vandalism was foreseeable, the landlord's argument of either incitement or negligence is going to pull enough weight that this WON'T get summarily dismissed. There are serious questions of law here: How does free speech balance against your duty to mitigate damages to others' property in the middle of a riot?

It would turn a lot on the facts: if 9 houses in the block got trashed, and only yours had a sign, then you're off the hook. But if yours was the only house and the sign would obviously enrage the crowd, that's not so good.

Freedom isn't free. A lot of people pay the ultimate price for it. Some spend years in jail waiting for the courts to affirm their rights. Repairing some vandalism is getting off easy. But that doesn't mean you can do the yelling and stick the "isn't free" part onto somebody else.

In a purely legal sense, if time and legal bills are no object

The bottom line is this: What is more likely than not? If the vandalism would not have happened but for your sign, then this opens a complicated question. That will be decided by a judge, or a jury if you or the landlord ask for and pay for one, and then various appeals on up the line, etc. Above a certain level, appeals courts don't have to take the case: they do only if it amuses them.

In a practical sense: you pay, and may also be evicted.

The problem is, dragging this through the legal system is probably impracticable for you, unless a free-speech advocate like ACLU or EFF takes a keen interest in your case early on, and is willing to "front-run" for you. Don't count on it; they are not consumer protection agencies and they pick-and-choose their cases for their own reasons. Not least, they don't take on cases they expect to lose.

So without legal help... The landlord will simply invoice you for the damages. And you need to pay it if you want to keep living there. If you refuse to pay, you will likely be sued for the amount and may even get an eviction notice, depending on landlord law in your area. Either one of these will eventually put you into court (at least the landlord will pay the filing fee), and this is where you get to raise your complex and subtle legal defense.

That's harder than it sounds. Without counsel, you'd be coming in as a pro-se litigant. Many judges will go out of their way to be gentle to a novice pro-se litigant, and prod you a little bit, and try to protect you from dirty tricks. But even the most sympathetic judge is limited by court rules, and a skilled landlord lawyer who goes up against pro-se litigants 3 times a day, will probably psych you out and cut you to ribbons before you even know what happened.

Regardless, losing amounts to the landlord garnishing your wages until it's paid.

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    @reirab It's actually settled law that tenants aren't responsible for damages caused by crime. If this answer were correct, a tenant would be responsible for the full cost of the structure if they were the victim of an arson that destroyed the entire property. If the tenant can produce a police report, the landlord would have to prove that no crime actually occurred and the tenant damaged the property themselves and then lied to the police. – tbrookside Jun 12 at 19:46
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    @eps But, it would be the landlord who would have to sue the renter, not the other way around. If they present you with an invoice you don't owe, just don't pay it. If they don't like that, then they can try to sue you, but that seems rather unlikely to succeed. – reirab Jun 12 at 20:58
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica Do you have any sources to support that exercising First Amendment protected political speech can possibly be considered negligence? – reirab Jun 12 at 21:04
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    Thanks for the edit. DV removed. – reirab Jun 13 at 0:03
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica For your argument to be true, an African-American tenant would also have to be liable for damage done to a leased property if they moved into a neighborhood of racists. – tbrookside Jun 14 at 16:22
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A lot have people touched on the concept of incitement here. I don't think it applies unless you were specifically asking for violence with the sign. Also, that seems to specifically refer to criminal law, not civil law.

I am certainly no expert on law, but I would say is that it would certainly be up to the interpretation of a judge, and it's not going to be clear cut either way.

The argument would certainly be that you were grossly negligent. There is no way that a tenancy agreement is expected to detail every specific behaviour that you must undertake in order to safeguard the property. The expectation is you act reasonably with diligence.

It is no real defense that others have acted illegally to cause this loss for the landlord. It is however a factor in determining risk. If you're in a neighborhood where houses are getting damaged due to signs, you cannot claim that you had an expectation that people would not break the law, and that your actions would not put the property at risk.

A few people have mentioned the First Amendment. No constitutional right is absolute. It may be perfectly reasonable for a judge to decide that the tenant has a legal right to display a sign, but the tenant will pay for any damages arising from that expression.

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    You cannot claim that you had an expectation that people would not break the law. Yes, you can. If not, moving into a neighborhood where arson was common would make a tenant liable for a third-party arson of a leased property. – tbrookside Jun 14 at 16:24
  • @tbrookside I don't understand your point. The cornerstone of the argument is that the tenant would be seen to be grossly negligent in their actions. What is the negligent action in the case where the tenant moves into the house? I think a lawyer would have a tough time arguing that occupying a leased property is acting in a negligent manner (but I could probably contrive examples in my head). – Gregory Currie Jun 14 at 16:58

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