The quest for quiet by David Klavitter and other residents of the H Street Northeast corridor took a step forward Monday when the D.C. Council Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs held a hearing on a bill to restrict daytime noncommercial speech.
The committee, which includes the bill’s author, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D), heard testimony in support of the bill from Klavitter and others affected by members of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, who preach loudly using amplifiers at Eighth and H streets Northeast on Saturdays.
H Street Main Street Inc. Executive Director Anwar Saleem testified that business is suffering around the intersection as “customers feel intimidated and shouted down.”
Joining in support of the bill were representatives from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which enforces noise statutes, and the D.C. Attorney General’s Office.
Opposition to the bill came from the American Civil Liberties Union and labor unions including the AFL-CIO.
The ISUPK did not testify; Wells’ office said no special effort was made to contact the group but that the public hearing was open to all.
The Noise Control Protection Amendment Act would close what supporters of the bill call a loophole that leaves noncommercial speech free of noise limitations from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Such speech would be banned if it exceeded 70 decibels unless it passed a “reasonable person standard,” meaning the noise would be acceptable to a reasonable person, as described in existing law. (A DCRA inspector at the hearing said he measured the H Street preaching at 86 and 91 decibels in 2005, and Klavitter, who runs a blog at QuestforQuiet. blogspot.com about the issue, has made similar readings more recently.)
Wells said unions need to understand that the reasonable person standard takes into account context and would allow union protests.
“The union argument was that they don’t trust anyone to apply the reasonable person standard,” he said. “They would not listen.
“There were no protections for residents provided by the unions here today,” he added.
Councilmember Kwame Brown (D), a co-sponsor of the bill, said at Monday’s hearing that he participated in a couple of rallies recently, including one at the Sudan Embassy, and feared that under the law those protests would have been banned.
“He is clearly sympathetic to unions’ right to protest,” Wells said, “but I do believe that once he’s shown it’s likely those rallies could still occur he’ll support the bill.”
Under questioning from Wells, Brown and the bill’s other co-sponsor, Committee Chairwoman Mary Cheh (D), union representatives offered no hints that they would be willing to compromise and expressed outright contempt for the legislation.
Wells contrasted that with representatives of the Service Employees International Union, who earlier proposed an amendment taking into consideration ambient noise that Wells said he will support. The amendment, which Wells said he would add during a markup he hopes to schedule in September, allows speech to exceed 70 decibels as long as it does not reach 10 decibels above the level of ambient noise, so as to allow for protests on noisy streets.
Wells told union representatives at Monday’s hearing, “If you’re saying you’re not going to be part of any compromise, for me as a leader it’s going to be difficult to move forward.”
The representatives downplayed the plight of Northeast residents affected by the preachers.
“The cure is far worse than the disease,” the AFL-CIO’s Joslyn Williams said.
On the other end of the spectrum were those wanting the bill to restrict speech further.
Joseph Fengler, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Ward 6, which includes Capitol Hill, said he thinks speech louder than 55 decibels should be banned and that the preachers are the “No. 1 issue” in his district.
“The noise level in midtown Manhattan is 75-80 decibels,” he said. “You’re asking us to live in midtown Manhattan in a residential neighborhood.”
Tony Norman, chairman of McMillan Park Committee Inc., a preservation group, testified that “there is a subtle racial component that has not been brought to the surface” in that the preachers are black and most of the bill’s community supporters are white. (The ISUPK often preaches messages that are critical of whites.)
In response, during his testimony Klavitter raised a decibel reader and said, “It’s funny, there’s no measurement of race or context on this. It’s a fairly objective device.”
The D.C. Council adjourns today until September, when Wells said he hopes to schedule a markup of the legislation. It could then be voted on during the October legislative session.
In the interim, Wells said to secure votes for the bill he needs residents outside the H Street area to contact their councilmembers.
“I want to give residents the chance to make the case to their elected representatives,” he said. “I ask the advocates of this bill to engage other areas and other ANCs.
“It can’t just be me.”