While picket lines are targeting hotels, neighbors are also impacted by the strike activity. Credit: Scott Snowden

Santa Monica has hosted several picket lines in recent weeks, mostly connected to Unite Here Local 11’s contract negotiations with hotels and the Santa Monica Police Department has seen a corresponding increase in calls during protests as tensions mount on both sides.

Last week, protesters clashed with private security at the Fairmont Miramar over access to the hotel’s driveway and video of security guards pinning protesters to the sidewalk prompted the union to file a labor complaint over the incident. However, complaints have been mounting with local authorities since the start of the strike.

Lt. Erika Aklufi said SMPD fields calls for service related to the protests from both sides, union and hotel management, as well as neighbors of the hotels. She said the department has heard complaints about physical confrontations, intimidation, trespassing, harassment, noise and obstructing the sidewalk among other things. While the calls have become a regular part of protest days, she said no one has been arrested. As most of the trespass and battery allegations have been made after the fact, SMPD officers are taking a report and then referring them for investigative follow-up or for filing consideration in the City Attorney’s Office. Nuisance reports for excessive noise and other municipal code violations are being referred to the City Attorney and to Code Enforcement.

Local officials said while neighbors may be annoyed and inconvenienced by the protest activity, the City’s noise laws have exemptions for this kind of activity and labor protests are additionally protected on constitutional grounds.

Santa Monica’s general noise ordinance says:

It shall be unlawful for any person to make, produce, maintain, cause or permit to be made any noises or sounds in such manner so as to unreasonably disturb the peace, quiet and comfort of persons of normal sensitivity within the area of audibility or which are so harsh or prolonged or unnatural or unusual in their use, time or place as to cause physical discomfort to any person of normal sensitivity within the area of audibility.

Specific volume caps range from 50 – 75 decibels depending on the kind of neighborhood (residential vs. commercial). Public parks, beaches, or recreational facilities have their own set of rules prohibiting amplified sound or music in the evening hours. Amplification is also prohibited on public property (including sidewalks) in residential zones or at stationary protests that exceed specific duration thresholds.

“However, please keep in mind that First Amendment expression, and especially labor picketing, is highly protected by the law and courts. Conduct directly associated with conveying a message, including, for example, playing drums, is specifically protected by law,” said City Attorney Doug Sloan.

In addition to the broad federal protections, Santa Monica’s local code also includes exemptions. Non-commercial outdoor activity is one of several exemptions and picketing is covered under that category provided it occurs between 7 a.m. – 10 p.m., on public property (excluding the Pier and Promenade), in a commercial zone and away from protected property like hospitals or schools.

Sloan said the overlap of residential and commercial property in Santa Monica meant the city’s code covering amplification rules would not apply to the protest activity.

“The restrictions on sound amplifying equipment in 4.12.105(a) through (c) apply only to properties in Noise Zone I, which is for properties in residential zone districts,” he said. “Further, the restrictions do not apply to the use or operation of sound amplifying equipment on a public sidewalk, street, alley, or parkway immediately abutting a property with a commercial use in Noise Zone I. Lodging, including hotels and motels, are a commercial use, as set forth in Santa Monica Municipal Code Section 9.51.030(B).”

Sloan said common courtesy is the best solution to complaints.

“The primary message for all concerned and affected should be this – people certainly should be respectful of everyone’s right to express themselves and picket,” he said. “However, those picketing should also be respectful of the rights of nearby residents to not be subjected to excessive noise, especially during nighttime and early morning hours. Voluntary compliance, and a bit of tolerance, usually works best. Also, it should be noted that there are civil remedies available to anyone who may believe their rights to peace and quiet are being violated.”

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...