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Santa Monica’s Noise Regulations Could Be Modified to Appease ACLU

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

February 9, 2015 -- A threat of litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has forced City staff to reluctantly recommend Santa Monica’s noise regulations be tweaked. 

The proposed modifications will go before the City Council on Tuesday, and more significant changes could be introduced later this year.

Among the proposed changes is that decibel restrictions would no longer apply to activities on public property, including streets and sidewalks.  This change is in response to the ACLU’s allegation that the decibel restrictions violate the First Amendment.

“Instead, noise would be limited in public spaces by [a] new, general prohibition on excessive noise,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie wrote in a report to the council

This proposed prohibition, which would apply to locations throughout the city, states:

It shall be unlawful for any person to make, produce, maintain, cause or permit to be made any noises or sounds in such manner so as to unreasonably disturb the peace, quiet and comfort of persons of normal sensitivity within the area of audibility or which are so harsh or prolonged or unnatural or unusual in their use, time or place as to cause physical discomfort to any person of normal sensitivity within the area of audibility.

Similar prohibitions have been approved in other cities and upheld in court decisions, Moutrie wrote.

The ACLU threatened litigation last year after a protester outside a local hotel was cited for violating the City’s decibel restrictions.

Among the organization's contentions with the restrictions are that they are “unreasonably low” and give “enforcement personnel too much discretion," according to Moutrie's report.

The City attorney noted that her staff does not agree with the ACLU’s opinion, but modifications are being recommended anyhow "that would both benefit the community and address the ACLU's concerns.”

City staff has not called for any changes to the decibel restrictions, which will still apply in areas that are not public spaces. 

But the restrictions could be adjusted after City staff conducts what Moutrie called “a full scale review” of the City’s noise regulations. This review will take place after the City’s ongoing zoning code update process concludes later this year.
Also not featured in the proposed modifications is anything dealing with amplification.

“Many community members have requested amplification bans,” Moutrie wrote. “But First Amendment case law narrowly limits the City's authority in this area.”
Among the other proposed modifications is a clause that a person cannot “interfere with or resist any efforts by law enforcement personnel to enforce” the noise regulations. Interference would include taking noise readings.

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