Five weeks ago, Walt Bourdot, 80, posted a bumper-style sticker on the outside of his Redwood Terrace apartment door. It read:
"DEFEND AMERICA DEFEAT BUSH."
Some, but by no means all, of the doors and recessed doorways at the 25-year-old Escondido retirement community are decorated in some personal fashion. A few display crosses or religious messages ("Let the hearts of those rejoice who see the Lord"). During the holiday season, wreaths are pinned to the doors. Following 9/11, patriotic flags blossomed.
Shortly after it went up, Bourdot's sign was ripped off and another was put in its place. It read:
"KERRY IS A (expletive)."
Not one to shy away from a conflict, Bourdot, a war veteran, pasted up another sticker: DEFEND AMERICA DEFEAT BUSH.
In short order, the unknown vandal changed the Democratic message, replacing Bush's name with Kerry's.
Meanwhile, Russ Stevens, a retired chairman of San Diego State University's psychology department, had joined forces with Bourdot and posted DEFEND AMERICA DEFEAT BUSH on his door. His sticker received the same alteration as Bourdot's.
In full throat, Stevens, 79, tacked up a broadside on his door. It read:
"BUSH & CO MUST GO! (THAT IS A MINORITY OPINION HERE AT REDWOOD TERRACE BUT IT DESERVES RESPECT.) AMERICA IS NOT YET A TOTALITARIAN STATE, SO YOU ARE FREE TO POST YOUR OWN VIEWS IN THIS ELECTION YEAR. PLEASE RESPECT OURS AND TRY NOT TO ACT LIKE A FASCIST THUG. KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF THIS NOTICE!"
On Sept. 8, a memorandum was sent to the (roughly) 160 residents of Redwood Terrace. It began:
"The Residents' Council was asked to create an ad hoc subcommittee to compose a statement regarding residents' political statements that are posted where they can be seen and/or defaced by others."
The notice went on to declare that the handiwork of the committee had been approved by Southern California Presbyterian Homes, the nonprofit corporation that operates Redwood Terrace. As a result, the following passage will be entered into the community's official handbook:
"The entrance door and doorway walls to the resident's living unit may be decorated as the resident chooses. However, all decorations, in whatever form, must conform to acceptable standards as established by the Residents' Council.
"Decorations should maintain the integrity of the door/doorway walls, not present a safety hazard, be in keeping with the general good appearance of the area and contribute to community harmony and good will. Solicitations posted on entry doors/doorway walls, including political statements of any type, are considered as not meeting acceptable standards."
Dan Ogus, Redwood Terrace's director, told me that the decision to ban political expressions from the public hallways rested solely with the Residents' Council. He likened it to changing the dress code in the dining room.
Bourdot & Stevens felt blindsided by a subcommittee of unknown composition. They doubted if anyone had advocated for them.
In a letter to the council, Bourdot wrote, "It's ludicrous to fear that free speech will have a detrimental impact on community harmony and good will. Is this not a significant election year, and aren't we all educated, intelligent adults? Can we tolerate differences of opinion?"
In his letter, Stevens wrote, "People of good will welcome dissent, disagree without being disagreeable and, when necessary, cordially agree to disagree. Unwarranted prior restraint merely papers over our differences, yielding an artificial, illusory equanimity. I do not intend to honor such restraints."
During a recent tour of Redwood Terrace, Stevens appeared willing to let the controversy go. Bourdot, on the other hand, remains defiant.
"I'm not taking it down," he said of his campaign sticker, which remains on his door. "I guess I'm pig-headed."
It's anyone's guess how his civil disobedience will play out at Redwood Terrace.
A call to the American Civil Liberties Union confirmed that renters, unlike home and condo owners, have no legal right to express political beliefs on their doors or windows.
The issue here isn't the letter of the law. On that score, the retired engineer doesn't have a leg to stand on as he maneuvers around his apartment with a walker.
No, the issue in a retirement community, at Cal State San Marcos or in the nation as a whole is how far to go to preserve harmony and good will during a political campaign that sends blood pressures soaring.
© 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.