George Mason Law School

Know your rights when speaking outdoors, before you need them

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October 20, 2009

1:35 AM

The students of the College of William and Mary received an e-mail Oct. 14 from Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler welcoming them to the city. While pleasant enough in and of itself, students could be forgiven for finding this somewhat jarring. After all, it’s an odd gesture in a relationship that generally consists of the city repeatedly telling students to drop dead in no uncertain terms.

In this context, the message that students received Aug. 23 was much more in keeping with the city’s style. That message took the form of a lovely new noise ordinance. This visionary example of lawmaking establishes a general limit on noise to 65 decibels during the day and 55 decibels at night. The ordinance also gets more specific for particular situations, but considering that 50 to 60 decibels is the volume of normal conversation, one wonders why they bothered.

With a minimum fine of $300 and no requirement that there first be any sort of warning, this ordinance is right up there with the three-person rule when it comes to the city’s love letters to the student body. One can’t help but wonder if there has ever been a noise ordinance not motivated by a desire to screw over the unfortunate group of students not savvy enough to get someone with their own interests elected.
Or, one might wonder why that decibel limit could not have been just a bit higher considering the typical age, and thus auditory ability, of the average student-disparaging Williamsburg resident.

The obvious solution is the one that has been littering The Flat Hat editorial and opinions pages for years. As Zeidler herself pointed out in her e-mail, students make up about half of the population. Maybe we could elect someone who doesn’t find the very concept of youth inherently suspect. But, such pipe-dreams aside, what can the individual student do while they wait for their fellows to be filled with righteous indignation and civic duty?

For one thing, the absurdity of the ordinance in practice could be demonstrated. With such low limits, it has made punishable a wide range of activities. Students, particularly those who have been targeted by the ordinance, need to ensure that they aren’t the only ones feeling the sting of this law.

It is true that the famed neutrality and professionalism of the Williamsburg and William and Mary Police departments might impede such efforts. Still, the folks in town who do vote and whose concerns are heard are only going to appreciate what a bad law this is if they are being reported under it as well.

Our own government could choose to get involved as well. The Student Assembly may not be able to say much of anything the city will listen to, but it still has its trusty consolidated reserve. If the city is going to try to nickel and dime students for running their air conditioners or talking on their porches, the SA does not need to sit idly by. A defense fund set up to review noise ordinance violations, on an individual basis, could look at the facts and help students pay for fines and legal costs. This would send a strong message to the city that the students disagree with this ordinance and would help students not feel like they’ve been hung out to dry when they’re targeted and fined for grilling outside.

Finally, students can assert their rights and know their options. This means knowing what the ordinance actually says, and knowing their rights under it. This is true both in regards to the city and to the College when the administration comes calling because a student was charged with breaking the law. A good first stop for this is Student Legal Services at the Campus Center.

Staffed by volunteers from the William and Mary Law School, SLS can explain the ordinance to students, let them know how the process works, and go over what can be done. SLS is staffed Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can also be contacted by phone at 757-221-3304 or e-mail at [email protected]

E-mail Chris Bettis at [email protected]

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