Homeowners group fights picnic

Candidate's plan for event at neighborhood gazebo sparks free-speech debate

July 12, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When she decided to run for office for the first time, Mary Beth Tung of Clarksville never expected her first political fight would be with her homeowners association -- over a gazebo.

But her plan to hold a neighborhood campaign picnic Sunday at the commonly owned structure in her Clarks Glen subdivision has sparked a battle, with the association board ordering her to cancel the event.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union says the Constitution doesn't protect free speech on private property, but Tung -- a Republican running for the House of Delegates in Howard County's new District 13 -- vows to hold the event as scheduled.

"We're going ahead. I can't cancel this," she said, explaining that she believes her free-speech rights are being curtailed.

While many candidates fear offending anyone, much less their neighbors, Tung is determined for another reason, she said.

"I think it's a bigger issue" than who can use the gazebo, Tung said. If elected, she'll press for a change in Maryland law to allow free-speech protections on private property, she said.

Tung has lived in Clarks Glen for six years and says the gazebo is used often by residents for social events.

The small, white structure sits on a corner of a large, grassy common in the center of the community, on the north side of Guilford Road and just west of Pointers Run Elementary School.

Tung said she checked the schedule weeks ago to make sure it would be available Sunday. But she got a notice this week -- long after she had distributed invitation fliers to all 198 homes in the community -- that her event is prohibited.

"The Board of Directors has stated that social situations such as your picnic, particularly since it is a political endeavor and you are charging admission, is not at all an appropriate or reasonable use of the Gazebo area," the letter read.

Only "private family gatherings" are allowed, it continued. "Any attempted use of this area for political or other proprietary purposes shall be considered trespass and appropriate measures will be taken to remove the offenders."

The notice came from Judith Ann Riden-Bringhurst, whose Westminster management firm cares for common areas at Clarks Glen. Neither Riden-Bringhurst nor association board President David Woodhouse responded to requests for interviews yesterday.

David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU in Baltimore, said "the problem is, as a federal matter, the Constitution generally doesn't apply to the actions of private parties." Some states, he said, have passed laws giving residents of private communities certain free-speech rights, but Maryland hasn't.

Yesterday, two neighborhood women watching their young children play in the driveway of one of Clarks Glen's large homes said they had heard about the picnic but had no opinion about the controversy.

Tung, whose invitations request $5 per person or $20 per family of more than four members, said she isn't charging admission but is merely asking for donations to cover her costs.

Her invitation says that she "invites her friends and neighbors to join her for an old-fashioned barbecue and lawn party. Chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers; balloons and games for the young and young at heart!" The event is scheduled at 4 p.m. Sunday.

Tung, the mother of two children ages 7 and 10, said running for office has been like parenthood: "You just don't know what to expect."

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