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Protesting Noise -- A Tale of Two Cities

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By Jorge Casuso

August 16, 2023 -- When it comes to the noisy union protests outside hotels embroiled in bitter contract negotiations, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills have taken divergent paths.

Santa Monica -- which in 2017 approved a noise ordinance to allow the union to demonstrate starting at 7 a.m. -- is doing little to address resident complaints.

Beverly Hills, on the other hand, has sued Unite HERE Local 11 over the noise complaints filed by residents in their city.

Changes to Santa Monica's noise policy were undertaken at the urging of the hotel workers union and against the advice of City staff during protests that were taking place at the Shore Hotel in 2016.

The union said the existing ordinance -- which prohibited noises that “unreasonably disturb the peace, quiet and comfort of persons of normal sensitivity” -- prevented people from properly protesting in front of the non-union hotel (“Free Speech and Noise Regulation Collide in Santa Monica,” April 13, 2016).

“This proposed change will support free speech,” Gabriel Rosco of Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) told the Council at the April 12, 2016 meeting. “Free speech needs this kind of protection.”

Rosco added, “When people’s well-being is threatened, there is a moral obligation to speak out and to speak loudly and to disrupt unjust practices.”

The pro-union Council agreed with Council member Kevin McKeown's motion directing staff to modify the noise ordinance so non-commercial free speech “shall be presumed to be a legal activity” in a commercial zone from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

At the meeting, current Mayor Gleam Davis strongly backed McKeown's proposed change.

“The progressive values of Santa Monica recognize sometimes we have to live with a little bit of disruption in order to give voice to all people who have something to say, and we equally have a First Amendment right to ignore it if we choose,” she said.

Approved by the Council on March 28, 2017, the amendment protects protest speech in commercial areas as early as 7 a.m., allowing the protests outside the Shore Hotel to continue without fear of police interference ("Santa Monica’s Noise Ordinance Altered to Accommodate Free Speech Concerns," April 3, 2017).

The City Code restricts sound amplifying equipment in properties in in residential zone districts, but the restrictions do not apply to their use on a public sidewalk, street, alley or parkway immediately abutting a property with a commercial use, which includes hotels.

As a result, neighbors complaining about the current demonstrations near their homes can do little or nothing to quiet the protesters who start banging drums, setting off sirens and chanting through bullhorns at 7 a.m.

"We're definitely getting calls," said Lt. Erika Aklufi, the Police Department spokesperson. "But we've not been enforcing it."

Aklufi said the first amendment protections under the City ordinance and more pressing police priorities have shifted enforcement to code compliance.

"It makes sense," Aklufi said. "That's not what people want police to do. There's no real public safety issue."

Instead, police are asking residents to "reach out to Unite HERE leaders" or report the complaints to code enforcement, Aklufi said.

According to Lauren G. Howland, the City's Communications and Public Information manager, "We’ve received a handful of related complaints. No warnings, citations, etc. have been issued by Code Enforcement."

Meanwhile in Beverly Hills, the City on Tuesday sued Unite HERE Local 11 alleging neighboring residents have been filing noise complaints over the early morning protests.

The public nuisance complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court seeks to limit the demonstrations -- which the City claims start as early as 5:30 a.m. -- to the hours between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The suit alleges that City Manager Nancy Hunt-Coffey and
police Capt. Giovanni Trejo have unsuccessfully asked protesters -- who use drums and bullhorns -- to wait until 8 a.m., when the City's noise ordinance allows the protests to begin.

Union Co-President Kurt Petersen issued a statement Wednesday saying the City is violating the protesters freedom of speech.

“It is beyond outrageous that the city of Beverly Hills is using its resources to stifle the First Amendment-protected protest activity of low-wage, immigrant workers,” Petersen said.

“These are workers who make its luxury hotels run and who are simply seeking a living wage. The city should be helping to lift them up, not attack them with baseless lawsuits.”

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