April 13, 2006

Court Rejects Noise Ordinance

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The City of Ithaca applied its noise ordinance unconstitutionally by effectively silencing a local man from preaching on the Commons, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week.

Six years ago, Rev. Kevin Deegan came to the Commons to preach the gospel. He began speaking, but after a local business owner’s complaint, was approached by an Ithaca police officer who said that Deegan was violating the Ithaca noise ordinance by preaching at a volume where he could be heard 25 feet away.

“I want to reach people; what’s the point in preaching if you’re not heard?” Deegan said.

The officer then told Deegan that he faced arrest if he did not lower his voice to a volume low enough to not be heard more than 25 feet away. Deegan then sued the City of Ithaca and the District Court presiding over the case ruled in favor of the city. He then appealed and the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor.

The court decision states, “As written, the City of Ithaca Noise Ordinance and the Ithaca Commons Amplified Sound Rule do not necessarily raise constitutional concern. … Applied as they are, however, the ordinances cannot survive constitutional review.”

Ithaca has two noise-related ordinances. The first states that “unreasonable noise [is] prohibited,” including 12 specific factors including noise intensity, nature, origin, volume and duration of the noise. The other ordinance concerning “amplified sound” states that someone cannot use sound amplification in the Commons in a loud, offensive manner that interferes with anyone 25 feet or further away.

According to Deegan, the police officer who approached in Commons took the two ordinances and combined them.

“He wasn’t enforcing the law, he was interpreting it and modifying it to fit the situation,” Deegan said.

Deegan said that while the officer went to get the ordinance for him, he heard a singing group on the Commons and people talking who were more than 25 feet away. He said he believes that he was singled out. Deegan said that he did not receive a copy of the ordinances when preaching on the Commons, but has had ample time to look over them during his two court cases.

“I don’t feel that my speech is unreasonable at all – it’s reasoned speech and articulated ideas. I think it was those ideas that were the real problem,” he said. Both the city and the reverend agreed that the noise ordinance addresses speech volume rather than content.

In terms of whether the Commons is an appropriate area for speaking and sharing ideas, the higher court said in its decision that the Commons area is a public forum and that a plaque there describes the area as “a public gathering place, commercial center and community focal point.”

The court said that the 25-feet rule is restrictive to “sounds that typify the Commons and the activities it is meant to facilitate. … A noise regulation that prohibits “most normal human activity,” including a spirited conversation by only two people, [does] … serve the City’s interest in maintaining a reasonable level of sound, at least in a public forum like the Commons.”

The Ithaca Common Council may be in a position to revisit the noise ordinance, depending on what actions the City Attorney office recommends.

“Right now the city attorney’s office is examining the decision to determine what effect, if any, the decision has on the current noise ordinance,” said Robert Sarachan, assistant city attorney.

The most likely outcomes include the advice that no changes are needed, that the Common Council should revisit the wording of the ordinance, or that changes should be made in the ordinance’s enforcement.

“Hopefully we can change [the ordinance] from 25 feet to a minimum of 200 feet,” said council member Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward). “I’d like to see the entire noise ordinance looked at again.”

Though the court case dealt primarily with the application of the noise ordinance for someone speaking on the Commons, the ordinance has affected students in terms of events and parties in the past few years.

“Pretty much as long as [the cops] can hear noise 25 feet away from a house, they have the right to enter,” said Sameer Mittal ’07, executive vice president of the Interfraternity Council.

According to alderperson David Gelinas ’07 (D-4th Ward), the target of the ordinance was to have some control over the parties in Collegetown and South Hill. He said that when problems arise, tickets are given to small groups of people just sitting on their porch.

“The ordinance is an infringement on individuals’ civil liberties to a certain extent,” Gelinas said.

With the ordinance in place, police officers do not need a complaint from a neighbor to give a violation.

According to Tompkins County Legislator Nathan Shinagawa ’05 (D-District 4), “The noise ordinance isn’t the problem; it should be targeting large, crazy house parties. Instead it targets small groups of people speaking about their political or religious beliefs or even just hanging out on their porches minding their own business and the appeals court recognized this [in their decision].”

When asked if he would return, Deegan said, “I fully plan on coming back and preaching in the Commons area.”

Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman
Sun City Editor