- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

D.C. Council members have introduced legislation that would limit noise in the District, a proposal aimed in part at turning down a religious group’s amplified preaching on a corner of the historic H Street corridor.

“People have a right to be free from unreasonable interference with the enjoyment of their home,” said Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors. “That’s a basic American principle.”

The proposed measure would amend the city’s noise law and is largely a response to resident complaints about the weekend preaching of a group called the Israelite 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.

Residents have complained that the dissonance is disturbing their quality of life, but they are careful to say they take issue only with the group’s use of an amplifier and not with the content of the message.

“We support free speech and assembly, but we also support the health and safety of residents and business owners and customers to function within the environment,” said Dave Klavitter, a resident who has led an effort to turn down the volume of the street preachers’ message.

That happens “by having a noise ordinance which regulates safe decibel levels for sound,” Mr. Klavitter said.

A loophole in the city’s noise law exempts non-commercial public speech during the daytime from limitation. Officials say the group’s messages have been measured at 75 to 92 decibels — noise levels equal to factory noise or thunder.

The council members’ proposal would make noncommercial public speech that is measured above 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet from the source of the noise subject to penalty.

Officials with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Metropolitan Police Department can issue citations and fines for noise violations. The maximum penalty for violating noise regulations is $1,000.

Under the proposal, officials said the noise also would have to violate the “reasonable person” standard set by D.C. Law, which defines a noise that violates the standard as “loud and raucous” or one that “unreasonably disturbs the peace and quiet of a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.”

Mr. Wells said including the standard in the statute “helps give context to time and place of the noise.”

“Let’s say someone wants to use a megaphone to call for their lost dog,” Mr. Wells said. “That may or may not cross a ‘reasonable person’ standard. Are they calling at three in the morning for their dog or are they calling at noon?”

The proposal was co-introduced by council members Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat, and co-sponsored by council member David A. Catania, at-large Independent.

In crafting the legislation, officials with the D.C. Attorney General’s Office studied noise statutes in other cities, including Boston, Chicago and New York.

Mrs. Cheh said officials attempted to balance the right to free speech with residents’ right to peace and quiet in crafting the amendment.

The legislation “is not in any way related to [speech] content,” Mrs. Cheh said. “We don’t want the government involved in what you can say or what you can’t say.”

ISUPK officials did not return a call seeking comment yesterday. Mr. Wells said he expects opposition to the bill from D.C. labor groups, who have expressed concerns about a law that could limit the right to protest.

But he said the legislation — which has been referred to the Committee on Public Services and Human Affairs, chaired by Mrs. Cheh — would protect residents’ right to peace and quiet throughout the District, not just at Eighth and H.

“My job is to strike the balance between the divergent interests of our citizens,” Mr. Wells said. “It will be a touchy issue. But I’m certain it will not be a constitutional issue.”

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