New Bill May Bring Quiet to H Street

Posted April 25, 2007 at 5:48pm

To hear the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge tell it, the deaths of 32 people at Virginia Tech last week were “the tip of the iceberg” and an “act of God.”

That was just one of the messages blaring — from an amplifier at roughly 80 decibels — from the group’s members at the corner of Eighth and H streets Northeast on Saturday.

But with a bill Washington, D.C., City Councilman Tommy Wells has introduced, the group’s days of preaching — at least at their preferred volume — may be numbered.

The Noise Control Protection Amendment Act of 2007 is designed to correct a loophole that leaves noncommercial public speech completely free of noise limitations from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The group has been coming to the intersection on Saturday afternoons for the past four years and preaches from 3:30 until 7 p.m. or later.

“As a result of the group’s amplifiers, residents as far away as three blocks away can’t open their windows or work in their yards without being subject to the amplified noise,” Wells said in a press release introducing the bill. “As a result of the legal loophole, DC officials cannot do anything to get the group to turn down their speakers to a more reasonable level and several attempts at mediation have been unsuccessful.”

On Saturday, the ISUPK preachers said they expected Wells’ bill to pass but that it wouldn’t deter them.

“We’ll do what the Spirit of the Lord tells us to do,” one member said. “So what if we get arrested? Who’s afraid to be arrested? I’ve been arrested two or three times. I’m going to do what God tells me to do.”

None of the group’s members would be identified for this article. One preacher, who when asked for his name said, “My name is ‘servant of God who prays every day for the white man to die,’” said that regardless of the City Council’s actions, “we’ll be on this corner until Jesus comes back.”

The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs sets the punishment for a noise violation, which currently is a per-day fine of up to $1,000. There is also the possibility of imprisonment of up to 10 days, according to the office of Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who co-introduced the bill with Wells. There is no language about harsher penalties for repeat offenders.

And what happens if the ISUPK does its jail time or pays its fines and returns to Eighth and H, as it promised?

“First we want to reclassify this as a noise disturbance and close the loophole,” said Charles Allen, Wells’ chief of staff. “Then down the road we’ll see what’s happening.”

In writing the bill, Wells enlisted the support of Cheh, a George Washington University law professor and former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Wells and Cheh worked with the D.C. attorney general to craft what they believe is a bill balancing constitutionally guaranteed free speech and protection for residents.

The legislation uses a “reasonable person standard,” meaning factors other than noise level, such as the location and duration of the sound, can be considered.

If a labor union was protesting on a street where traffic noise reached 70 decibels, Wells’ chief of staff gave as an example, the union would be able to generate noise louder than if it were somewhere quiet.

“Or you could take the example of the preaching,” Allen said. “If they say the word ‘hallelujah’ once and only that goes over 70 decibels, that’s not a violation if it happened only once. But if it’s at 80 decibels and it’s for four hours, that’s a different story.”

As for the bill moving forward, Cheh chairs the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, which has jurisdiction over noise statutes. A hearing is being organized to gather testimony from community members supporting the bill and labor unions concerned about losing their right to protest, according to Allen.

After that, Allen said, the legislation will be marked up by the committee and sent to the full council. Even in the best-case scenario, though, he said the Noise Control Protection Amendment wouldn’t become law until late summer or early fall.

Dave Klavitter, a Police Service Area 102 volunteer coordinator who lives on Eighth Street between G and H streets, right in the preaching’s path, has been pushing the City Council to correct the loophole for years. He says he doesn’t care about the content of the ISUPK’s message, just its loudness.

“Everybody does fixate on the content because it’s so, ‘Wow, you don’t hear this every day,’” said Klavitter, who started a blog called “Quest for Quiet” on the issue. “But it’s really about the volume, the decibels. I believe in the free marketplace of ideas as long as it doesn’t infringe on my right to peace and happiness in my own home.”