Testimony at Monday’s Spokane City Council meeting included the sounds of William Cruz on guitar and trumpet as some downtown buskers argued against proposed noise restrictions.
But Spokane City Council members said the new rules, which they approved 6-1, protect free speech while making the law easier to enforce when buskers or other sound makers infringe on other peoples’ rights.
The ordinance will replace a law that was approved in 2010 that required an officer to take a decibel reading of the noise in order to issue a violation. It bases most noise limits on how far away the sound can be heard, a standard that many other Washington cities use.
Performers or anyone else making sound on public rights-of-way such as sidewalks will be barred from making noise that is “plainly audible” 100 feet away if other factors are at play, such as if the noise is rattling windows or includes “heavy bass frequencies.” If a performer were playing between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. they also can't make noise that is “plainly audible” on adjacent private property. The distance limit for noise from private property was set at 50 feet or the property line, which ever is shorter.
Spokane City Councilman Steve Salvatori, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Councilman Mike Allen, said the 100-feet distance may the longest distance that any city in Washington allows for noise. He also stressed that the new law, unlike the old one, requires police officers to give offenders a chance to stop making the noise before issuing a citation.
“This is a kinder, gentler ordinance,” Salvatori said.
After his brief, amplified performance Cruz called the 100-foot limit “a joke.”
He and others argued that the standard is less subjective than using decibel readings and could open the city to lawsuits for infringing on people’s free speech rights.
Gonzaga law professor George Critchlow likened the ability of police to issue noise violations without a decibel reading to issuing speeding tickets without using a radar gun.
City officials said using audible distance rather than decibel readings is an accepted standard across the state.
"The present ordinance is not working. It hasn’t been able to be enforced," said Councilwoman Amber Waldref. "I’m willing to try this other arpproach."
The new rules will cover the whole city, but the debate focused on downtown, in part, because much of the push to craft new rules came from downtown businesses in response to the playing of Rick Bocook, a harmonica player who goes by Harpman Hatter. Police officials said the current ordinance would require expensive noise meters and training.
As of last week, the proposal allowed police officers to issue violations even if the noise didn’t meet the distance standards, a provision that was criticized by Spokane’s Center for Justice as creating a chilling effect on speech because it would have given officers the authority to determine if the noise “unreasonable annoys” others without much limitation, they said. The council voted Monday, however, that officers must use the distance limits in order to determine violations. The ordinance also says that the content of the noise must not be considered.
Councilman Jon Snyder cast the lone vote in opposition to the ordinance. He argued that changes made on Monday were significant enough to delay a vote to allow more public comment. A majority of other council members, however, said changes were made to make it more acceptable to critics and weren’t significant enough to warrant another delay.
City administrators began working on a new noise ordinance the same year the current law was approved.
The new law will be less strict than what was on the books before 2010. The earlier law set the audible distance limitations at 50 feet for most noise, including from public property.