- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

A group of D.C. residents is trying to stop street preachers from blasting their messages through amplifiers on a Capitol Hill street corner.

“We can hear it in our homes; we can’t open the windows,” said David Klavitter, a resident spearheading an effort to turn down the volume of the street preachers’ messages. “It’s disruptive to one’s quality of life and to community vibrancy, not only for residents but for businesses as well.”

The complaints stem largely from the preaching of a group called the Israeli School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK), whose members use an amplifier to deliver what neighbors describe as diatribes about race and homosexuality at Eighth and H streets in Northeast.

Homeowners, with the support of local advisory neighborhood commissions and businesses, have lobbied city officials to solve the problem for more than a year, saying they take issue only with the group’s using an amplifier and not the message’s content.

“When someone can project their views two blocks into a residential community at rock-concert levels, it’s not a matter of free speech,” said Joseph Fengler, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who has helped residents advocate for a solution to the noise issue. “It’s a matter of the level of noise that they’re projecting that becomes a problem.”

But a loophole in the District’s noise law — which allows noncommercial public speaking between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. — has prevented agencies such as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Metropolitan Police Department from taking substantial action.

Officials now say the residents’ only hope would be a legislative fix to tighten the city’s noise statutes, causing concern among another group — D.C. labor leaders — that such a measure would limit their right to protest.

“This is an issue that not only affects unions,” said Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO. “But it affects every single person, group or organization that wants to legitimately protest in the District of Columbia.”

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, has promised to fix the situation, and said the attorney general’s office is working to craft legislation that keeps all parties happy.

“All the complexities in between are complexities in between,” said Mr. Wells, who along with council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, met with labor leaders and representatives from H Street and the attorney general’s office Jan. 30. “But we just have to knock each one down till we get the result that certainly does not violate the Constitution, protects union workers’ legitimate right to protest [and] at the same time helps the local residents address a long-standing problem.”

Mr. Wells hopes to have legislation ready to submit to the council next month.

Attorney general spokeswoman Traci Hughes said officials are studying noise laws in cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles to see what they can glean from those statutes.

In New York City, which is slated to adopt revised noise regulations in July, speakers who use amplifiers on city streets are required to obtain a permit from the police department. Officers also regulate the decibel level of the speech.

“They’re not limiting what you say with your sound-reproduction device,” said Ian Michaels, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s simply a matter of whether you’re disturbing people nearby.”

Officials declined to discuss specifics of the pending D.C. bill, but Mr. Wells said penalties for breaking the law likely would include citations and fines.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty also has pledged to support Mr. Wells’ noise legislation.

H Street historically has served as a street-preaching pulpit and is home to several present-day preachers who use amplifiers.

Groups elsewhere in the city also use amplification systems, including one that regularly speaks at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue in Northwest.

ISUPK has been less-than-friendly when approached about turning down their amplifier, residents said.

Representatives of the religious group could not be reached for comment, but they have said in the past that they use only a small amplifier, that neighbors’ complaints are not noise-related and that the members are there to help change the lives of the area’s underprivileged.

Mr. Wells said he has not spoken with ISUPK about the amplification problem but that members have resisted past mediation efforts.

“They have not portrayed themselves as being reasonable,” Mr. Wells said. “I may decide to talk with them before the legislation is enforced to be sure they’re on notice that they’ll be in violation of the law.”

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