Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Whose Right is Right?

(CLICK TO ENLARGE) Amid sprinkles of a chilly rain, the one who calls himself Yohanna yells into the microphone at the corner H and 8th Streets NE on Jan. 14, 2006. His voice is strong and loud—even without the amplifier. (Copyright © 2006. David Klavitter)

Yohanna is the apparent leader of the noisemaking group that appears every Saturday at the corner of H and 8th Streets NE. He and I engaged in a quick, but cordial, conversation several weeks ago. Sunglasses Man had blocked my path when I tried to photograph the group from the public sidewalk behind their assembled stage. Yohanna intervened, and we briefly discussed what we each believed were our rights.

Yohanna said he believed his group has a right to be heard over the ambient street noise—including the cars, trucks and buses. He said the amplifier is necessary and legal. I reiterated that the neighborhood residents are not challenging the group’s right to gather or speak on the corner. We have a right to comfort and convenience, I said. We simply do not want the amplifier projecting speech into our living space along 8th Street.

Here is a great paragraph from the 1949 U.S. Supreme Court decision KOVACS v. COOPER, which found that a municipal ban on the use of any sound system emitting "loud and raucous" noises on public streets did NOT violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. It was written by Justice Stanley Reed in the 1949 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Kovacs v. Cooper (1949):
The preferred position of freedom of speech in a society that cherishes liberty for all does not require legislators to be insensible to claims by citizens to comfort and convenience. To enforce freedom of speech in disregard of the rights of others would be harsh and arbitrary in itself.

It’s January now—the noise affects on the neighborhood will worsen when windows open, gardens bloom, and the community tries to venture outside. Let’s hope the D.C. City Council can warm up to a legislative fix before the spring thaw.

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