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Protesters Raise a Ruckus Over Noise-Bill Delay

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

Shortly after 7 a.m. yesterday, people in bathrobes and mismatched pajamas peeked out their windows and doors to see what all the racket was about on the 3100 block of P Street NW.

On the red-brick sidewalk, soaked by a steady drizzle, were four angry D.C. residents and two amplifiers -- making enough noise to rattle the Georgetown neighborhood for blocks.

David Klavitter, Patti Shea, Gretchen Brandt and Pamela Froggin say they live with the same level of noise every weekend in their section of Capitol Hill, where street preachers plant themselves at Eighth and H streets NE with loudspeakers.

They thought the clatter would be quieted last month by the D.C. Council. But that was before Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) got six other council members to join him in delaying a noise-reduction bill after union activists said the legislation would limit free speech and the preachers' rights.

So the protesters gathered at the crack of dawn across the street from Evans's home to practice a little free speech of their own. They were joined by one of Evans's two golden retrievers, which started barking from the window.

The demonstrators loudly called on Evans to allow the bill to pass. It would restrict noncommercial public speech during the day to no greater than 70 decibels. Fines would be assessed for louder speech measured 50 feet from its source.

The decibels reached yesterday -- recorded in the 90s by Klavitter's noise meter -- left Evans's neighbors ticked.

"I just want to shoot them," said Sarah Donze, 21, a George Washington University student.

She paused, then added, "With a tranquilizer."

"This is my Saturday off. I was going to get up this morning anyway, but I wasn't going to get up until 9."

The worst part? "We can't understand them," she said, gripping her umbrella and staring at the demonstrators.

The amplifiers, one covered with blue tarp and the other by a broken black umbrella, muffled the noise and produced feedback that sounded like nails on a chalkboard.

"That's right. Feedback is legal," said Klavitter, 40, who works for a trade association and has a blog called Quest for Quiet. Since 2005, he has kept a record of the decibels and din at Eighth and H from the street preachers of the Israeli School of Universal Practical Knowledge.

The preachers have said they have lowered their volume and assemble later in the day to appease the complainers.

In front of Evans's house, Klavitter continued protesting, speaking in what sounded like tongues. Maybe it was a scat. Or was it just drivel?

"It would be more effective if we knew what they were saying," Donze said as Klavitter went into a "be-de-be-de-bop-bop."

Larry Calvert, who works in advertising at The Washington Post, couldn't take it anymore. Barefoot in a T-shirt and shorts and without an umbrella, he went out into the rain to confront the protesters, who were in front of his house. "This doesn't make sense," he told them, his words reverberating through the amplifiers.

Klavitter said they wanted to be at least 50 feet from Evans's house, in keeping with the legislation. He handed Calvert some spongy green earplugs. The disposable kind.

"Talk to your neighbor, ladies and gentlemen," said Shea, 36, referring to Evans. "I'm just getting started. I'm sure my voice at 7:20 in the mornin' ain't pretty."

When Evans walked out of his house with his daughters, who hopped into a sport-utility vehicle for a carpool, Shea greeted him: "Good morning, council member. Hi, Jack!"

Evans didn't say a word and didn't look back as he walked up the steps and into his house. In an interview, he said he has faced protesters in front of his house before; it seems to be part of his job. So go ahead and shout and amplify on P Street, he said: "It's absolutely their constitutional right to do it."

And about the bill he tabled, he said it needs work to protect free speech.

Froggin, 68, who moved into her Eighth Street home in 1991, said: "I was raised to believe that free speech is a precious right, but I also believe in the right to privacy. If I can't sit in my house and listen to music. . . ."

After 3-year-old Lucy Kerr was awakened by the clamor in front of her P Street home, she and her father wandered out. Joseph Kerr, 39, said he used to live in the H Street area and knows all about the street preachers. "I empathize. . . . I'm familiar with their cause," he said.

But he said he also wanted to sleep in. "It's a good lesson for her to learn," he said as Lucy spun in circles on the sidewalk in a raincoat and pink Crocs. "Unfortunately, the lesson is: Two wrongs don't make a right."

Klavitter acknowledged that the protesters' earsplitting display was "pretty rude. It's pretty obnoxious." But, he said, it's the only way they can be heard.

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