By Kevin King-
Can your freedom of speech be curtailed in downtown Asheville? If someone complains, yes it can. The City of Asheville Noise Ordinance allows for complaints of “volume or quality” to silence private citizens, even with proper permits.
Pete Blackshaw moved to this area just four years ago. Since then, he has held numerous concerts, many of the bands playing Christian music. Over this time period, he has been shutdown by noise complaints several times. His most recent run-in with Asheville City Police came during his concert in Pack Square on Saturday.
After securing a $250 permit to hold a concert, hours of preparation and setup, Blackshaw brought bands from across the southeast to perform in Asheville. However, someone complained about the show. What ensued was a visit from three police cruisers to inform him that their concert could be shutdown. Luckily it was almost over and they were able to finish up. Had it been earlier in the day, it might have been cut short.
“It’s not about the volume, it’s the content” said Blackshaw. While the secular, or non-Christian, bands were playing, no one complained. Once the Christian band took the stage, that’s what caused the complaint believes Blackshaw.
Why does he believe it’s the content not the volume? Once before, Blackshaw was shutdown while holding a Christian concert. After having the event, he went before the Noise Ordinance Appeals Board. During the proceedings, there was documentation by the officer who responded to the noise complaint that stated several facts about the noise level. The officer stated that on the first call, they asked Blackshaw to lower the volume level. Upon returning a second time, the officer noted that the volume had indeed been lowered, yet still shutdown the event.
In the statute regarding noise complaints in the City of Asheville, there is in fact no regulation on actual volume. Any volume level deemed bothersome by an individual can be cited as a noise violation. If someone disagrees with the content, they can complain about the noise, regardless of the volume level, and have that event ended.
Blackshaw brought up the idea of defining decibel limits in the noise ordinance to assist with compliance. He states that the response to this was that it would be too costly to monitor and measure volume levels. However, the Apple App Store has several decibel measuring applications available for smartphones for $0.99 or less. Being able to measure sound levels would allow for a defined regulation, but would remove the subjective enforcement of the ordinance.
While reasonable volume level would be the goal, that is not defined by the city. Furthermore, it seems that holding a concert, in the middle of the day, in Pack Square, with the necessary permits, would be exempt from a reasonable noise complaint. Yet subjective regulations allow for rules to be unfairly applied. Without defining concrete rules to follow, there is no way to comply. Freedom of speech applies, unless someone thinks your speech is too loud, or your message is a Christian one.