By Thomas Okuda Fitzpatrick, ACLU of Virginia Dunn Fellow
Note: In February of last year, Richmond City Council unanimously approved an ordinance prohibiting noise that it is “plainly audible” inside someone else’s home or at fifty feet away. After that ordinance was ruled unconstitutional for being overly broad, City Councilman Charles Samuels proposed another one to take its place. Below ACLU of Virginia Dunn Fellow and city resident Tom Fitzpatrick wonders if Samuels’ proposal is an improvement.
Your kindergarten teacher’s “inside voices” rule may become law in the City of Richmond if a proposed “sound control” ordinance is passed by the City Council. Although the ordinance is very specifically written, no doubt in an effort to pass constitutional muster, it fails to account for the realities of urban life.
The ordinance, as proposed, is far too stringent and outlaws much of what is charming about urban life. It sets a day-time standard of 65 decibels and makes it a misdemeanor to produce sound that exceeds that level when measured on a neighbor’s property. In comparison, normal conversation is about 60 decibels and a noisy restaurant can reach 80 decibels. The standard is laughably low for houses situated only a few feet from each other, as is the case in Church Hill, the Fan, and many other parts of the city. Under the ordinance, I could be charged with a misdemeanor for listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in my backyard as I worked in my garden if a decibel reading in my neighbor’s yard, only a few feet away, exceeds 65 decibels during the dramatic crescendos.
Stores with external speakers will not have to abide by the same 65 decibel standard, but instead, will have to participate in a troubling permitting scheme. Stores will be required to obtain a permit from the Chief Administrative Office, who will have the discretion to determine if a store’s external sound system is “excessive,” “necessary,” or “appropriate.”
Finally, the ordinance codifies excessive noise as a criminal misdemeanor, rather than treating excessive noise as a civil matter, akin to a parking infraction. It adds another criminal charge to the books for an action that is far from criminal. Does playing one’s music too loud or expressing one’s self in a particularly boisterous manner really warrant a blighted criminal record? Criminalizing loud music is a foolish way to govern.
I moved to the city precisely because of the urban atmosphere. This past Saturday, my neighbors had a live band playing at their party, and my friends and I decided to have dinner on my front porch to enjoy this unexpected public concert. I understand that my entertainment could be another person’s nuisance, but this is the marked charm of city life.
We need a noise ordinance that fits life in a city, not one that criminalizes city living.
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