by Editorial

The Washington Post

April 13, 2011

FOR EIGHT WEEKS this year, aggrieved workers at the District’s Madison Hotel picketed the downtown property to protest what they saw as unfair labor practices of the new owner. One of the impetuses to emerge from the protest — although it was probably not the intent of the workers — is the need for the city to do something about its notoriously weak noise ordinance. This is not, as some would claim, a matter of free speech. It is about whether the District is serious about making its urban neighborhoods welcoming places to make a home and do business.

Full disclosure: We had a front-row seat to the dispute between the Unite Here Local 25 union and Jamestown Properties, the hotel’s new owner, which fired 27 employees and refused to honor the existing contract. The hotel is across the street from The Post’s 15th Street offices. Every day from early morning into late evening, including weekends, protesters chanted into bullhorns, yelled into microphones and pounded on drums. “There is no escape” is how the resident of a nearby apartment building, Masako Iwamoto, recently described the earsplitting experience in a Post Local Opinions piece that provoked a torrent of generally sympathetic responses. The protests ended after a tentative agreement was reached last month.

That, though, doesn’t obviate the need for the D.C. Council to revisit city noise limitations. Indeed, the day the protests stopped at the Madison, another noisy labor protest was staged near the Farragut North Metro station. Neighborhoods disturbed by past protests include Gallery Place and the Penn Quarter. Businesses and residents aren’t the only ones inconvenienced; schools have been affected, with learning disrupted.

An effort was undertaken in 2008 to toughen the District’s unusually liberal noise laws but the city’s labor organizations orchestrated, with the help of D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), an amendment limiting it to residential areas. “A noise shall not be considered a noise disturbance if it is made during noncommercial public speaking during the daytime and does not exceed 80 decibels inside the nearest occupied residence in districts zoned R-1A, R-1B, R-2, R-3 or R-4” is the relevant passage cited by the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. That means no recourse for Ms. Iwamoto, who lives in a commercially zoned neighborhood one block away from the Madison — or for the many other residents whom city officials have successfully lured to mixed-use developments aimed at enlivening the downtown.

Labor officials argue that protest is the only method available to workers to fight for their rights against adversaries with greater resources. But the demonstrations of the Madison workers were not aimed at getting a message across; they were intended to create a nuisance that would cost the hotel business. No other city, according to the advocacy group Noise Free America, allows unlimited amplification in the name of free speech. Indeed, courts have upheld limitations on amplification to safeguard public health and safety. No one is suggesting that anyone’s voice be stifled, only that it not be artificially — and noxiously — augmented.