May 3, 2012

WE WERE A BIT surprised to read that D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) thinks the District needs better rules governing political demonstrations. It was Mr. Evans, after all, who pretty much threw up his hands and said nothing could be done to crack down on the offensive noise that has become the chief weapon of labor protests in this city. If Mr. Evans is serious about wanting to close the gaps in the laws that let protesters run roughshod over public interests, he should start with the bucket-banging and amplified bullhorns that regularly bombard downtown workers, tourists and residents.

Mr. Evans introduced a bill this week that would require demonstrators to give notice and obtain a permit before demonstrating on city streets, sidewalks and parks. He said weaknesses in the city’s law were revealed last fall when Occupy D.C. protesters routinely marched on city streets without notifying police. This strained police resources and inconvenienced motorists. Mr. Evans’s bill — which has attracted no co-sponsors and was consigned to unfriendly committees — would direct police and consumer and regulatory affairs officials to devise the rules.

Current law, the result of a 2004 overhaul to better protect free speech and assembly rights, includes a permitting process with thoughtful rules that is managed by the Metropolitan Police Department. But failure to obtain a permit or provide notice is not considered an offense. Whether the law needs further tightening is worthy of study in light of concerns that the lack of notice makes it impossible for police to schedule staffing, resulting in increased overtime costs.

What needs no further study — only the political will to act — is strengthening the city’s weak noise ordinance that gives free rein to demonstrators to create a public nuisance. The protests are generally staged by Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, which hires homeless people to make as loud a racket as possible. Recent weeks have seen protests outside the Mayflower Hotel and an office building on L Street NW. Protesters should be allowed to assemble and express themselves. But other cities have rules to prevent protests from turning into extortive exercises intended to make life untenable for hotel guests or nearby workers.

When we wrote about this issue last summer, Mr. Evans — who was instrumental in diluting efforts to toughen the law in 2008 — told us, “It is what it is.” Allow us to translate: The council won’t enact reasonable restrictions on excessive noise because unions, a powerful constituency, are opposed and there will be no compunction in cynically hiding behind the First Amendment to justify this abdication.