Buskers beware: D.C. lawmakers are considering a bill that would crack down on amplified sound in public places.
The bill introduced last month by D.C. Council Members Anita Bonds, Mary Cheh and Jack Evans would expand what amplified sound is illegal.
At a hearing this week, supports of the bill said the measure would protect their right to peace and quiet in their homes. Opponents said it would violate free speech and unfairly criminalize street performers.
Bonds said she introduced the Amplified Noise Amendment Act of 2018 to make D.C., particularly downtown D.C., a better place to call home.
"We’re trying to make sure that downtown is a viable entity for people to live in," she said.
The bill would make it illegal for anyone to amplify sound in a public place if it can be heard at 80 decibels or louder from inside a home or commercial building at least 100 feet away.
Eighty decibels is louder than a washing machine or dishwasher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Under the current law, the sound is illegal only if it's that loud inside the nearest home — not a home further away, and not inside a commercial building.
Also, the bill would let police confiscate a noise-amplifying device for as long as 24 hours. And it would reduce the punishment for violating the law after a verbal warning. The current maximum fine of $1,000 would be dropped to $300. A punishment of as long as 10 days in jail would still apply.
Exceptions to the 100 feet rule would include parades, public gatherings and demonstrations.
At the hearing Monday, residents in favor of the bill said amplified noise affects their health, work and businesses.
"Please take the action required to get performers to turn it down and cure this problem before summer gets into full swing so we the citizens and taxpayers can enjoy our homes, workspaces and outdoor environments without being bombarded,” a woman who has lived in downtown D.C. for 10 years said.
A man said noise outside his home in Chinatown exacerbates his tinnitus. He said it's difficult for him to concentrate, despite spending thousands of dollars on noise-insulating windows.
Others asked the Council members to reject the bill.
“[The Amplified] Noise Amendment Act of 2018 seeks to provide suburban amenities in urban settings by further criminalizing youth and street musicians with standards that are subjective and not verifiable, with more negative police encounters,” another D.C. resident said.
The man described the sounds of drums, horns and amplifiers as the “sounds of the city." He said the musicians were downtown before many residents were.
“You’re not going to get a quieter city and a denser city at the same time. But you can soundproof these buildings ... it just costs some money,” he said. “The city has the resources to make that happen. I think this is an easy fix if we’re willing to truly invest in the people and not into punitive punishments.”
The bill will be reviewed by the full Council.
Bonds, the Council member, said her goal is to find a solution everyone can live with.
“It’s not designed to take your First Amendment right from you. We’re just saying, don’t do it so loudly, so you don’t disturb the person next door,” she said.