Do protestors have the right to make too much noise?

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Thank you Noise Curmudgeon for bringing our attention to this story about Planned Parenthood filing suit against noisy protestors. When ordinances prohibiting excessive noise are passed, citizens often complain that there is a lack of enforcement and the intrusive noises continue to impact on their health and well-being. This appears to be the case in Spokane where Planned Parenthood claims that demonstrators outside their health clinic engage in hourlong sessions of loud singing and music playing without any noise violations being issued to halt this behavior. The response from the police is that there were no grounds to issue violations. Thus, Planned Parenthood initiated legal action against the anti-abortion protesters who have been conducting religious services outside the health clinic.

Apparently, this legal action in Spokane is not the first involving a dispute centered on the rights of abortion protestors to engage in loud activities in front of health clinics. A noise law protecting an abortion clinic survived a challenge in West Palm Beach, Florida in 2013. Similarly, anti-abortion protesters in Jackson City, Mississippi were prevented from demonstrating loudly near a Jackson Women’s Health Organization. And Charlotte, North Carolina also passed a law in 2019 creating a buffer zone in front of medical facilities, including anti-abortion clinics, and as result, curtailed loud protests near these clinics.

One needs to understand that outside noises may intrude on doctors carrying out medical procedures as well as patients recovering from these procedures and this would be true of hospital facilities in general, not just abortion clinics. Thus, one can readily understand why anti-noise ordinances limiting loud demonstrations near health facilities are necessary. Hospital areas have long employed quiet zones around them and enforcing such zones does not go against the right to free speech.

Thus, recognizing that the city’s noise limits might hold the gatherings outside the Spokane health clinic illegal, a pastor at Covenant Church and the leader of the protestors stated that “[t]hey can keep us quiet with the sound ordinance, but they can’t stop us. So if we got to sing quiet, we’ll sing quiet.”

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Comment (1)

  1. Ben

    I’m all for forcing anti-abortionists to pay for free food and education and housing and lifetime psychotherapy for all the unwanted children they force into existence, but I’m not really so into finding new ways to quash protests. ESPECIALLY if they involve unamplified singing!

    My understanding is that some noises are devastating to health (e.g. helicopters), and others not so much (e.g. white/pink noise), and others genuinely good (e.g. gentle breeze in pine trees). I would think that singing has a lot more potential to be on the positive side than the negative, although out-of-tune angry singing about you being a murderer or whatever rubbish they’re coming up with perhaps less so…

    I guess what I’d really like is for us to develop a deeper understanding of noise than “it’s always bad”: let’s figure out what’s the most harmful, which should inform how to balance good vs. harm.


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