Ocean City Looks To Stave Off Noise Ordinance Halt

OCEAN CITY — With a June 10 hearing looming on the temporary future of Ocean City’s enforcement of its noise ordinance on the Boardwalk, town attorneys this week filed a motion in opposing a preliminary injunction in an attempt to stave off a halt to the ordinance while a civil suit proceeds.

On April 10, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit in federal court on behalf of violinist William Hassay, Jr. challenging the town’s noise ordinance changes on the Boardwalk the organization believes are an attempt to silence musicians. In the suit filed against the Mayor and Council and acting-Police Chief Michael Colbert, the ACLU alleges the enforcement of the town’s 30-foot noise ordinance on the Boardwalk infringes on Hassay’s, and other performers’ fundamental right under the First Amendment to engage in freedom of speech and expression in a public forum.

While the suit ultimately seeks a reversal of the town’s changes to its noise ordinance on the Boardwalk, the legal process could take several months to unfold. In the meantime, Hassay’s attorneys are seeking a preliminary injunction, which, if approved, would force the town to suspend the enforcement of the 30-foot rule on the Boardwalk until the case is resolved, likely the rest of the current summer season. A hearing on the preliminary injunction is set for June 10 in federal court, but town officials are attempting to stave off the injunction to allow for the continued enforcement of the noise ordinance on the Boardwalk until the case is resolved.

The town’s opposition to the preliminary injunction points out a halt to the enforcement of the noise ordinance on the Boardwalk would diminish the visitor experience during the height of the summer.

“The question posed to the court by Hassay’s motion for preliminary injunction is whether the court should enjoin the town from enforcing its noise ordinance and thus nullify the town’s ability to protect its citizens from unreasonable and intrusive levels of noise during the pendency of this case,” the motion reads.

The motion said granting a preliminary injunction would imply Hassay has a winnable case, which the town believes he and the ACLU have not proven.
“In order to receive a preliminary injunction, a plaintiff must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor and that an injunction is in the public interest,” the motion reads. “Because Hassay cannot show a likelihood of success as to any of his claims, the town should not be enjoined from enforcing its noise ordinance and Hassay’s motion for preliminary injunction should be denied.”

The town’s motion further points out Ocean City’s amended noise ordinance does not discriminate based on content, but merely the volume of noise.

“The contention that music is restricted more heavily than other forms of speech including yelling, shouting, hooting, whistling and singing, and the noise ordinance is therefore content-based is unpersuasive,” the motion reads. “The noise ordinance does not restrict or prohibit any noise on the basis of its content, but only sets a uniform volume restriction relating to the time, place and manner of Boardwalk noise. It is the volume of noise that is restricted, not the message expressed therein.”

The motion also calls into question the findings of an acoustical engineer, a pillar of the ACLU’s case against the noise ordinance. The sound engineer’s findings were taken on a weekday in March and not during the height of the summer season.

“While the Boardwalk would be generally vacant but for a few pedestrians on a Wednesday in March, the summer brings in varying crowds of people along with hundreds of other pedestrians, patrons and vacationers,” the motion reads. “It is during these summer months that the merchants and businesses using loud music to attract customers, along with performers, arcade games, amusement rides and other noise generating elements create the need for the noise ordinance. Sound level measurements taken during a weekday in winter on the Boardwalk give little to no insight as to the acoustical atmosphere present on the Boardwalk during the times at which the noise ordinance is necessitated.”

In the motion, Ocean City defends its 30-foot rule on the Boardwalk, where merchants and street performers often try to one-up each other with sound to attract patrons.

“Without the restrictions included in the ordinance, a ‘battle of the bands’ scenario occurs which has plagued noise and crowd control on the Boardwalk in the past with each merchant, musician or performer attempting to project louder than his neighbor in order to attract customers or an audience,” the motion reads. “As competitor stores and street performers increase their volumes, others do the same to draw customers or audience members. In the past, this scenario resulted in unreasonable and intrusive noise levels around Boardwalk stores and performances, which the noise ordinance how helps to control.”