When the Seattle Housing Authority found a swastika, Confederate flag and pornography on its residents' doors, the low-income housing provider...

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When the Seattle Housing Authority found a swastika, Confederate flag and pornography on its residents’ doors, the low-income housing provider banned all door postings. Goodbye Christmas wreath. No more pastoral watercolors. Even the “Do Not Disturb” sign had to go.

That ban, the state Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 ruling Thursday, violated the tenants’ right to free speech. Even if they live in public housing, their doors belong to them.

“A government ban on all residential signs constitutes a violation of the First Amendment,” Justice Charles Johnson wrote in the majority ruling.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Barbara Madsen wrote the authority adopted the rule “as a landlord attempting to manage its property and avoid signs and decorations on doors that are offensive to tenants, are unattractive, and cause damage to doors.”

The Seattle Housing Authority, which runs about 5,200 units for low-income residents in more than 100 locations, does not plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but is considering other ways to ban door postings.

Tom Tierney, the Housing Authority’s executive director, called it a philosophical issue among residents.

“It’s a matter of whose rights ought to be paramount,” he said. “Is it the right of the neighbor who’s got to get past this other person’s free speech? Or is it the right of the person who wants to put up whatever he wants on his door?”

The Resident Action Council, a nonprofit group of Housing Authority residents, sued the agency in December 2005, after attempts to soften the ban’s language failed.

“We’re not in favor of obscenity or hate speech. We don’t want people putting up swastikas either,” said Eric Dunn, a lawyer representing the council.

Dunn said he never saw photos proving a swastika was posted. “I wouldn’t have taken the case if there were swastikas.”

The point is, he said, “The rule was unconstitutional.”

The ban never took effect because the Housing Authority suspended it pending court decisions.

King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Barnett rejected the ban in summary judgment. The Housing Authority appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeals, which passed it to the state Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Justices Johnson, Susan Owens, Richard Sanders, Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and pro tem Justice C.C. Bridgewater affirmed the lower court’s decision, saying that because the lease doesn’t specify to whom the doors belong, they belong to the tenants.

Justices Tom Chambers, Mary Fairhurst and James Johnson joined in the dissent, in which Madsen wrote that the doors belong to the landlord, and should be treated as a nonpublic forum, where free-speech protection is limited.

Madsen also wrote that low-income residents in public housing should be subject to the same constitutional standard as wealthy people living in expensive apartments, where landlords can ban door signs.

The Housing Authority is considering changing the lease to specify that the doors belongs to the agency, a move resident Rick Harrison says he would fight.

Harrison, a member of the Resident Action Council who lives in Cedarvale House near Northgate, said, “We could understand the logic of having a rule like not having racist hate messages or obscene messages, but a complete ban was ridiculous.”

Harrison, who has signs criticizing President Bush on his door, says he doesn’t believe a swastika was ever posted.

A senior property manager for the Housing Authority, Bruce Garberding, said he saw the swastika, a Confederate flag and “Soldier of Fortune”-style images on a tenant’s door, and has come across nude photos on other doors that he considers demeaning to women.

The buildings he manages house people of different backgrounds, he said, and “to have folks who put objectionable posts on the door or weird bumper stickers that are threatening makes it difficult for us to help develop a sense of community in such a diverse population.”

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958