After complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union, City Council voted to alter its noise ordinance Tuesday night.
In July, after a person was cited under the previous noise ordinance while protesting at a hotel, the ACLU sent City Hall a letter asking that three sections of the ordinance be addressed.
The changes eliminate decibel level limitations on public property “where First Amendment activity enjoys the most amount of protection” like the sidewalks, Deputy City Attorney Yiben Shen told council.
“The proposed law does not change the decibel limitations over the city’s most congested places such as the transit mall, the promenade, and the pier,” he said. “The proposed law also does not make any changes decibel limitations over private properties throughout the city, where traditional noise enforcement has been mostly focused on.”
The law will set a general prohibition, essentially citywide, against “unreasonably loud and disturbing noise,” he said.
Street performer Ned Landon expressed concern about the possible impacts of the new law.
“This amendment would appear to move the clock back in time to when a subjective assessment of the officer was all that was needed to issue noise violations,” Landon testified. “This was a time when one officer might walk by and smile because they subjectively assessed you to be pleasant and later, another would walk by and tell you to move along because they subjectively assessed you to be too loud. There was no way to know or to be consistently judged whether you were in violation or not. This cause uncertainty and fear which had a chilling effect on the expressive participation.”
Councilmember Ted Winterer noted that the amendment would have no impact on the performers on the Third Street Promenade — the most popular place for street performance.
Shen noted that regulation of noise at the Santa Monica Pier and at the transit mall will also be unaffected.
“So we’re just changing the way we evaluate noise in other public spaces,” Winterer said, “so if you were performing in some other public space you might conceivably be impacted by this change but given the preponderance of our street performers in those locations you just identified, it shouldn’t be cause for significant concern.”
Landon compared street performers to a canary in a mineshaft, gauging the health of the rights of the community as a whole.
Another speaker complained about noises coming from a private school in his neighborhood, PS1 Pluralistic School.
The amendment passed by council was designed specifically to address concerns put forth by the ACLU (though city attorneys did note they believe the previous ordinance to be constitutional) and has minimal impact on the enforcement of noise violations at schools.
Still, several council members expressed interest in having the Planning Department address some of the issues brought up by the speaker at a later date.
The vote was unanimous among the six members present.
“Noise regulations are extremely difficult to implement especially in public places, parks, and beaches where there are severe First Amendment regulations that limit the city’s ability to regulate,” Shen said.