The D.C. Council is scheduled to vote on legislation limiting noise levels in the District — a proposal aimed in part at curbing the amplified sounds of street preachers in the historic H Street corridor.
“There can be restraints on the time, the place or the manner of speech,” said council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat who has co-introduced the legislation. “If it’s unreasonable in light of the particular circumstances, then it can be regulated.”
The council’s Committee of the Whole is expected to vote Feb. 19 on the bill, a result of what some say is a loophole in the District’s noise law that has allowed street preachers on H Street in Northeast and groups elsewhere in the city to use amplifiers to convey their messages.
One group — called the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK) — has delivered diatribes about race and homosexuality at the intersection of of Eighth and H streets that residents say can be heard inside their homes.
“It has nothing to do with free speech, assembly, religion,” said Dave Klavitter, a resident who has led efforts to resolve the issue. “It’s a fundamental right to peace and quiet in one’s own home.”
The loophole exempts noncommercial public speech from limitation during the daytime. Officials say the groups’ messages have been measured at 75 to 92 decibels: levels equal to thunder or factory noise.
The council’s proposal would make noncommercial public speech that is measured above 70 decibels or 10 decibels above the surrounding noise — whichever is greater — subject to a penalty.
The noise would have to be measured at a distance of 50 feet from its source, or from inside the nearest occupied home in a residential zone. The bill also states a disturbance would have to violate the “reasonable person” standard set by D.C. law.
Penalties for noise violations in the District range from $1,000 to $8,000.
The other co-sponsors are council members Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, and Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat.
The legislation has support from community groups and some labor unions, but has met initial opposition from the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union, which has not made a final determination on whether it will back the bill.
An ISUPK representative did not return a call yesterday seeking comment.
Rick Powell, political and legislative coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Council, said the city’s current law is adequate and the proposal will hurt the rights of unions and others to protest.
He also said his group was not adequately notified of the bill’s markup and has filed a formal complaint with the council.
“This is going to affect every single person who protests or who comes to D.C. to protest,” he said.
Mrs. Cheh said her committee adhered to the council’s requirements of public notice regarding the markup of the legislation and that it would not limit anybody’s rights.
Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat and a friend of the labor unions, said he is “inclined not to support” the bill.
“Are the unions going to come down with voice meters when they’re protesting?” he asked. “We live in a democracy and nothing should infringe on that.”
• David C. Lipscomb contributed to this report.