Measure Tabled Over Unions' Free-Speech Concerns

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Union activists persuaded a narrow majority of D.C. Council members yesterday to table a bill initially aimed at quieting street preachers on H Street NE after the protesters said it would limit free speech.

In a 7 to 5 vote, the D.C. Council delayed the Noise Control Protection Amendment Act of 2008, which would restrict noncommercial public speech during the day to no greater than 70 decibels. The legislation originated in response to some H Street residents' complaints about the amplified speeches of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge. The proposed bill would limit speech to about as loud as someone could yell. Violators would face fines, starting at $1,000.

The majority agreed with unions that the bill infringed on free speech and needed to be retooled.

"This bill is not the correct approach," council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said in an interview. Evans moved to table the legislation after member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) proposed it. The shelving of the bill, which supporters fear could mean its death, was a blow to council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and a group of H Street residents who have been fighting to hush the street preachers for three years.

A Washington Post survey of street sounds in August showed that the preachers got as loud as 98 decibels from 3:15 to 4:15 p.m. on a Saturday, about five decibels softer than a Washington Nationals baseball game on a Thursday evening.

Wells pointed to other cities, such as Los Angeles, New York and Miami, that limit daytime noise to 60 decibels or less.

"What I'm trying to do is balance the interests of the residents with the interests of the unions," Wells said. "It's very hard for my colleagues to stand up to the unions."

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said the current law considers both demonstrators and residents. Such noise is not permitted between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. In addition to Mendelson and Evans, Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and council members Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) voted to table the bill. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) was absent.

Although the Service Employees International Union supported the legislation, other unions, including the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, did not.

About 75 union members, some wearing stickers reading, "Working People Need a Voice, Too . . . It's Called Free Speech," watched the council vote. Afterward, John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, gathered the group in the hallway. "It would not have happened if you were not in the room," he said.

The union, which represents industrial workers and restaurant and hotel employees, has been in this fight before. In the mid-1990s, then-Mayor Sharon Pratt proposed banning amplifiers, bullhorns and musical instruments after hotel owners complained that picketers were disturbing guests.

The union won. Although it appeared the union won again yesterday, Boardman warned the workers that the bill could be resurrected.

That's what Joe Fengler, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area that includes the controversial corner at H and Eighth streets NE, is hoping. He said residents were surprised by two votes: those of Brown, a co-sponsor of the legislation, and Alexander, who recently told the Hillcrest Community Civic Association that she supported the bill.

Alexander and Brown said that they remain supportive but that the bill needs work. "Everyone says to table means to kill. . . . To table means to work it out," Alexander said. Wells, however, issued a news release yesterday saying the council had tabled the bill "indefinitely."

Staff writer Marianne Seregi contributed to this report.

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