D.C. college students raise their voices over noise law

D.C. college students are raising a ruckus over changes in a city law requiring them to pipe down.

The amendment to the city’s noise-reduction law, which took effect Feb. 1, is too vague and the punishments too severe, according to Ben Marcus, chairman of the D.C. Student Alliance, a group comprising 15 area schools.

“The idea that you can go to jail for being too loud … does not seem to be proportional to what the person is being convicted of,” said Mr. Marcus, a University of the District of Columbia senior. “It doesn’t appear from the outside that the city did any research on what other cities do about noise issues.”

The amendment, passed in January by the D.C. Council, bans the making of an “unreasonably loud noise between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. that is likely to annoy or disturb one or more other persons in their residences.” Violators face a maximum penalty of a $500 fine or 90 days in jail.

Supporters say the law represents a slight tweak on the previous noise statute, but the change has been the source of considerable consternation on campuses across the city. The headline for one letter to the editor at Georgetown University’s “The Hoya” student newspaper read: “Vague Noise Law Spells Doom for Student Rights.”

The D.C. College Democrats issued a statement warning that the revised ordinance “creates a subjective standard that is sure to hurt D.C. students, who lack the significant representation that they deserve in the greater D.C. community.”

Mr. Marcus hand-delivered a letter last month to Mayor Vincent C. Gray requesting a meeting with alliance members, but no date has been set. The letter was signed by student leaders from six D.C. schools in the alliance: UDC and American, Catholic, Howard, Georgetown and George Washington universities.

The alliance also has reached out to D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and is seeking a meeting with police department officials.

“We are really after clarification of what the intentions were and if there are alternatives to what they have put in place,” Mr. Marcus said. “We are looking for a solid test that police officers can use at the scene to determine whether someone is breaking the law.”

Many residents living near the schools say the more specific statute is needed because students in off-campus housing are often unreasonably loud.

“I have from time to time had to phone in complaints, and a great many people in west Georgetown and Burleith have had that experience,” said Ron Lewis, chairman of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E. “It is a constant issue in the community. Alcohol is often a big part, and it gets noisy.”

Mr. Lewis said college students occasionally forget or just don’t realize that many of their neighbors have young children or must get up early for work.

“That is who is complaining,” he said. “It is not always [from] a party, but something that is very intrusive, such as a large group of students going past your house at 3 a.m. with a loud conversation going on.”

Earlier this month, the ANC formally objected to Georgetown University’s proposed 2010 Campus Plan, calling on the university to cap enrollment, cut down on off-campus housing and alter university rules about buses and student cars.

“A very large number of GU students,” the resolution stated, “often through late-night activities and frequently fueled by alcohol, do not comply with the responsibilities of living in the community and continually do cause objectionable impacts.”

School officials have strongly opposed the amendments, and expressed disappointment when the ANC resolution was approved.

Local resident say much of the fault for the tensions lies with the university administration.

“We don’t blame the students,” Mr. Lewis said. “Students are going to live a nocturnal kind of life. We blame Georgetown University. They are lining their pockets with all of this extra tuition. We think that is wrong.”

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, thinks the changes by the city add “awesome definition” to the noise law.

“A lot of this reaction is a result of the fact that the law is clearer,” he said. “What we did, apparently quite successfully, was add more clarity to the law.”

He said the changes, in fact, better define the noise law, including replacing the word “nighttime” with the specific hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. The legislation is less about noise abatement and more about disorderly conduct, Mr. Mendelson added.

He said often police issue only a warning and those found in violation of the noise law do not automatically receive a punishment. He said only those intending to “provoke breaches of peace” should be arrested.

“We have a simple law regarding noise,” the council member said. “A reasonable person knows when they are being annoying.”

Howard University sophomore Zakiya Cobb told the Hilltop, the student newspaper, that she could see both sides in the dispute.

“I understand the reasoning behind the law. However, it’s going to result in more college students getting arrested,” she said.

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