In the real estate industry, there is a lot of grey area when licensees express themselves. Governed by Fair Housing Laws, local and state laws, and ruled by the Code of Ethics (and soon, the Code of Excellence), REALTORS® are looked to for professionalism, but are also given specific freedoms under the First Amendment.
That brings us to the recent case of an agent expressing his views on illegal immigration while running for a Board position at his Realtor Association of Prince William (PWAR).
Cockroaches and the Confederate flag
Akbar Siddique of City Homes Real Estate in Manassas, Virginia set up a fake Facebook profile years ago under the name “Rony Humble,” sharing hundreds of links and pictures espousing negativity toward “illegals,” calling them “cockroaches,” and repeatedly urging that the borders be closed. For some time, his profile picture was a Confederate flag, and there was a peppering of posts about City Homes and listings.
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Although the profile was years old, it caught several people’s attention recently, who felt that the posts constituted hate speech and made for a deplorable representation of the membership (which is the job of a Board member). Controversy brewed. Some supported his free speech, others had no problem with his posts, while others felt it misrepresented the profession.
Siddique is now bowing out of the race and will not appear on the ballot. His profile has since been scrubbed of most of the offensive content and the name has changed to “Akbar S Rony.” He has failed to respond to requests for comment, so we have no explanation or denial from Siddique.
PWAR responds to the issue
April D. McMillan, Chief Executive Officer at PWAR tells The Real Daily, “The comments on this person’s personal profile page in no way reflect the views or position of PWAR, or of our state organization, Virginia Association of REALTORS®, or the National Association of REALTORS®. Licensed REALTOR® members of the real estate industry adhere to a high professional standard as established by the National Association of REALTORS® Code of Ethics, which has existed for 100 years.”
Further, McMillan notes, “Article 10, in particular, deals with a REALTOR®’s duties to the public, stating that REALTORS® shall not discriminate against any person or persons on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. This Code of Ethics is what distinguishes a licensed REALTOR® from a non-licensee. Our organization also has an official grievance and adjudication process in place.”
PWAR does not have plans on adding any diversity courses or addressing this specific instance directly, but offers bi-monthly Fair Housing courses for their members.
Others use this same speech online
This case is not exactly unique, you’ve probably seen people in the industry posting questionable material in public. For example, Brenda Free, AE at Scioto Valley Association of REALTORS® posted these, also with a Confederate flag profile picture; are these acceptable?
The real question: what is okay, what is not?
We all enjoy free speech under the First Amendment, but as real estate professionals, what is done in public comes with rules. Had this fake profile been completely private and locked down, would it have been acceptable? Had this agent not been running for a Board position, would anyone care? Are statements perceived as racist not acceptable while silly posts like “Teacher: What comes after 69? Student: Mouthwash. Teacher: Get out.” (that remain on the scrubbed account) are okay?
Further, is hate speech a violation of the strict Fair Housing laws? Our sources at HUD say Siddique’s posts are questionable, and the postings are not necessarily illegal from a real estate professional, but if someone was discriminated against by this agent at any time, they’d have quite a bit of ammunition to present to a court and would “likely lose even the weakest of cases against him.”
Aside from Fair Housing, should this type of discriminatory public speech be allowed under Article 10 of the Code of Ethics? Does it rise to the level of professionalism this industry has worked so hard to accomplish as a mechanism to establish trust with consumers? Will the pending Code of Excellence obliterate this type of behavior?
It is questionable whether or not this type of speech is legal, but the consensus appears to be that it is unquestionably unprofessional and fails to rise to the industry’s standards, thereby hurting the relationship between real estate professionals and consumer, which has a ripple effect. It is our hope that Associations use this as an opportunity to rally members in solidarity and educate on what is and is not acceptable, in a truly meaningful way.
There is a real grey area here that as an industry, we must consider and examine. Tell us in the comments your thoughts; we’re interested, and we are listening.