The City Council has passed a controversial exemption to the noise ordinance that will allow loud protests on public property between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. as long as it is not near a residential property, hospital or school.  The exemption does not include the Santa Monica Pier or the Third Street Promenade where the City regulates performances.

The hotel worker’s union Unite Here and local activists support the new exemption and applauded the Council’s support for free speech during the Tuesday night Council meeting.

“When Donald Trump was elected President, my club organized a march to cope with the anger we felt,” Santa Monica College student Salma Morales said during the public comment portion of the meeting, adding that 500 students joined her march.  To her, the ordinance exemption is empowering.

“It’s dangerous when students no longer have the freedom to speak freely without fear of being cited by the City.”

The change to the noise ordinance is a direct result of union demonstrations outside the Shore Hotel on Ocean Avenue over working conditions.  At one demonstration in 2015, police detained several members of Unite Here after a protest. The union members complained the owner of the Shore Hotel tweeted pictures of protesters getting detained to deter other workers from speaking out. No one was booked or jailed after the protest.

In response, Unite Here urged the council to draft an exemption in the noise ordinance that would explicitly protect non-commercial speech.  The Director of Planning and Community Development David Martin initially argued against the exemption, noting police should be allowed to exercise discretion when responding to loud protests. Out of 44 demonstrations in 2015, police only interfered at two.

Back at the initial City Council discussion in April 2016, City Manager Rick Cole warned a loophole in the noise ordinance could come back to bite the City Council. Especially because the US Constitution prohibits from censoring speech based on content.

“Todays situation may be different from tomorrow’s situation” Cole said at the 2016 meeting.

Tuesday night, representatives of the restaurant industry and the Chamber of Commerce echoed the City Manager’s words.

“Our concern with the ordinance before you this evening is that it would essentially remove the protections that currently apply to residents and visitors and employees and employers who are in our public spaces and commercial areas and have a right to not be offended by incredibly loud sound,” Chamber of Commerce director of government affairs Carl Hansen said.

“You can just imagine a resident walking in our downtown being accosted by a religious proselytizer on a megaphone or a visitor sitting at an outdoor café on Main Street and someone sets up a amplified electric guitar and the noise is so loud it hurts,” Hansen said.

Despite the concerns, the City Council unanimously passed the noise ordinance exemption.

“I think it is a recognition that we need to acknowledge the need for free speech,” Councilmember Gleam Davis said.

“We need to accept that sometimes the First Amendment can be messy…it can lead to conflict.”