Legal concerns with public neighborhood websites

Peters & Freedman, LLP is a legal firm that specializes in Community Association law in California. They have a detailed post on their blog of “do’s” and “don’ts” from a legal perspective when it comes to publishing association documents and other information on your neighborhood website.

I generally agree with what they have to say. Here is a quick summary of their do’s and don’ts:

Do’s

  1. Require that residents sign in to access private neighborhood documents.
  2. Post CC&Rs, Bylaws, Rules and Regulations, Architectural Guidelines.
  3. Post a strong privacy policy (See our Privacy Policy.)
  4. Publish a disclaimer for any information posted on the website (See our Disclaimer.)
  5. Seek written permission when publishing photos of homes or residents.

Don’ts

  1. Don’t assume that you have met your legal notification requirements when you post information on the website.
  2. Don’t post non-privileged vendor contracts, membership lists, reserve account balances, financial statements, and other specified financial documents.
  3. Don’t provide chat room or discussion forums

#3 in the don’ts list is the only thing that I disagree with. I understand the concern, I just don’t agree with the proposed solution.

The legal concern is that online discussions will become inflammatory or defamatory or contain offensive language, which may have legal implications.

However, the reality of the situation is that residents demand the ability to have online discussion. In fact, they even get upset if we limit this capability. (See my post on suggestions from our users.)

Instead of removing the capability to have an online discussion, I would suggest that the website implement the proper controls that influence appropriate behavior.

For example, in order to post information on an eNeighbors website, you must agree to disclose who you are. You cannot hide behind an avatar or alias that hides you. So, when you post information, your name is attached to it, forcing you to think twice about what you say online. We have also provided other users with the ability to flag content as inappropriate. If you see a post that contains something negative, all you have to do is click a link and we’re immediately notified to remove the post. And finally, you can also review information before it is posted – that way nothing inappropriate ever makes its way on the website.

All in all, I think the best way to put any legal concerns to bed is to simply make your neighborhood website private. Through our registration process, eNeighbors can ensure that only residents are allowed access.

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