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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Revise the noise ordinance so everyone understands the rules

Spokane and its police department have made a mockery of state and city laws against excessive noise. Despite improvements in recent months, they have failed to consistently and appropriately respond to obnoxiously loud protests outside Planned Parenthood.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear has a sensible proposal that strengthens the city noise regulations and, we hope, will lead to ongoing enforcement and compliance. Her proposed ordinance would target noisy protests outside from disrupting work inside any health-care facilities in Spokane, including Planned Parenthood. Naysayers claim the ordinance would trample their First Amendment rights. They’re wrong. As Kinnear notes, “It does not impact free speech. Protests are still allowed; that’s not the issue. It’s about noise.”

Americans have a right to protest in public spaces. That includes the regular anti-abortion demonstrations by a group that calls itself the Church at Planned Parenthood. However, Planned Parenthood and other organizations have the right to conduct their lawful business free of undue interference. In this case, those activities include a range of health services and counseling in addition to abortion.

Government must strive to uphold both rights. Spokane has not done so. There is strong evidence that the demonstrations sometimes are so loud that they constitute harassment of patients and staff inside the clinic – adding to their stress, overwhelming their attempts to converse and sometimes forcing them to switch rooms.

That might be what some demonstrators want, but it does nothing to further the civic debate on this contentious societal issue. Rather, it further polarizes people and accomplishes nothing other than perhaps making protesters feel like they’re accomplishing something.

It didn’t help that the Spokane Police Department abetted the situation by being overly reluctant to enforce existing noise regulations.

Kinnear’s proposal, which she introduced Feb. 3, would complement state law that prohibits interference with a medical facility. The city ordinance would prohibit intentionally making noise that can be heard inside the building and which is intended to cause “jeopardy to the health of persons receiving health services within the building” or “interference with the safe and effective delivery of health services within the building.” Police could not act unless they first had told the people creating the noise to cease.

Along with possible fines and jail sentences resulting from a conviction, the ordinance would allow “aggrieved” parties on their own to file civil cases against people who violated the ordinance.

Kinnear’s proposal should not have been needed. From the outset, the police department and city officials should have worked harder to understand how the noise interrupted the workplace and to help protesters comply with the law. Officers deserved to be well trained about the city and state noise laws before being forced to decide when and how to enforce them. There is a vast and obvious difference between the demonstrations and, as one police lieutenant said last year, “you drive through (Gonzaga University) with your windows down and you can probably have 25 or 30 noise ordinance violations. When are you going to enforce it?”

To that we would ask: What’s the point of having a noise ordinance if the city is unwilling to enforce it?

Enforcement is driven by complaints, and that process should be accessible and easy for complainants to follow. If Spokane is unsure how to handle its noise ordinance, surely there are other jurisdictions and law enforcement organizations to which the city could turn for experienced guidance.

Education and understanding are critical. Clarifying city law, as Kinnear’s proposal would do, can help educate the public and the police, so everyone can understand the impacts of noise, what the rules are, why they are in place and how they will be enforced.

Some people may argue that if the city council passes the ordinance, it will be taking sides in the abortion debate, censoring free speech and restricting religious expression. That is not the case. There always is a balancing between advocating for a cause and intruding on the rights of others.

While police have a duty to use discretion and not go overboard, they also have the duty to enforce the law. The new ordinance is needed, but it will be worse than worthless if city officials do not put teeth into their enforcement.

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