Anti-noise ordinances target union protests

When the D.C. Council tabled the Noise Control Protection Amendment Act of 2008 on Tuesday, it dealt a heavy blow to fairness for residents across the District.

I introduced the bill as a way to strike a balance between the right to enjoy peace and quiet at home and the right to make noise in public. The bill would close a loophole that makes the District the only major U.S. city with no limits on noncommercial amplified noise. I also reached out to my colleague, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a constitutional law scholar, to carefully craft the bill to ensure that it in no way, shape or form would limit the right to free speech or the ability to organize.

As Cheh and I worked to fix the loophole, we listened to complaints about noise from residents across the city. Overwhelmingly, residents told us they did not want to limit free speech, but they couldn't compete with amplifiers outside their living room windows. They just asked for a little fairness and protection of their rights, too.

The bill that came before the council has the support of civic associations across the city that represent the many neighborhoods that suffer as a result of this loophole -- as well as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing many of our city's working men and women.

Under our proposal, amplified noncommercial speech could reach levels of 70 decibels, or 10 decibels above the ambient-noise level, whichever is greater. The ambient-noise provision reflected a critical compromise with the SEIU to ensure that protest is meaningful and never drowned out. In practical terms, 10 decibels typically represents a doubling of the noise level, guaranteeing that protest can always be twice as loud as the noise around it.

This approach strikes the balance that protects one's ability to make noise, but it also grants D.C. residents some assurance of quiet within their homes. It uses tested and constitutionally proven tools that would still leave Washington with the nation's most liberal and permissive rules on amplified noise.

In fact, New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles -- cities that embrace organized labor and protests -- already have such controls on amplified speech; the rules protect First Amendment rights to free speech and allow residents to enjoy quiet within their own homes. I hope that with time, the bill's opponents on the council will recognize the need to provide the same reasonable protections enjoyed in most every other major American city.

- Tommy Wells, Washington, a member of the D.C. Council (D-Ward 6).


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