Charlotte City Council passed new sound ordinance rules in an hours-long meeting debate that, for many in the audience, had become a referendum on demonstrations outside an east Charlotte women’s health clinic.
Hundreds of anti-abortion protesters gathered opposing the ordinance, wearing teal shirts that said “Love Life.” Far fewer gathered in support of the abortion clinics.
The Monday vote occurred after several protesters stormed the City Council meeting and engaged in “disruptive behavior,” according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police. The demonstrators were critical of the anti-abortion protests, but said the noise ordinance wouldn’t make a difference.
“Two individuals climbed onto the Council Member’s dais and displayed a banner while others stood in front,” according to a CMPD press release. The banners read Charlotte “silences women” and “amplifies misogyny.”
CMPD identified the three arrested protestors as: Landon Rice, 24, Julia McCarthy, 18 and Benson Crooks, 21. The three are accused of ignoring “multiple verbal warnings to stop their disruptive behavior,” said CMPD.
The ordinance restricts people from using loudspeakers within 150 feet of schools, places of worship and medical facilities.
Supporters of the new rules billed the change as protecting quality of life in some of Charlotte’s busiest entertainment and residential districts, but opponents claimed that the ordinance tramples their right to free speech and protest outside of abortion clinics.
About 120 people spoke either for or against the sound ordinance change, most of them focused on daily protests outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center, an abortion clinic located on Latrobe Drive in east Charlotte. About 50 of them were from Charlotte.
“Please, please put aside this ordinance. All of you certainly know that this is really about squelching, limiting the free speech of those who are pro-life,” Leon Threatt, a pastor at the Christian Faith Assembly in Charlotte, said during the meeting.
“I think the majority of us would think of this (speech) as emotional harassment. Nowhere in the constitution does it say free speech is amplified speech,” said activist Laura Reich.
Council members Ed Driggs, Greg Phipps and Tariq Bokhari, voted against the new ordinance. All the other council members voted for it.
The amended noise ordinance will ban loudspeakers, bull-horns and megaphones within a 150-foot “buffer zone” around schools, places of worship and medical facilities. It will also ban any “intentional” or “unreasonably” loud noise in the buffer zone. Currently, there is no buffer zone at all.
Along with adding the 150-foot zone, the new ordinance escalates penalties for repeat violators. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers are tasked with enforcing the city’s restriction on noise in protected zones.
A first offense carries a $100 “civil penalty” fine and a second violation within the same year will cost $500. Anyone found guilty of three or more noise ordination violations in a 12-month period would be fined $1,000 for each new violation. Those who violate the ordinance could also face criminal misdemeanor charges.
While the amendment doesn’t explicitly mention abortion clinics, council member Driggs, in an interview with the Observer before Monday’s meeting, said he was convinced those who drafted the new ordinance wrote it with anti-abortion protesters in mind.
“This is pretending to be not about abortion and First Amendment rights — but it really is,” said Driggs, who voted against the noise ordinance.
Anti-abortion groups including Cities4Life and Love Life both encouraged their members to oppose the sound ordinance change at Monday’s meeting. Before the meeting, hundreds gathered in the government center to lobby to sing contemporary Christian songs and pray for the noise ordinance vote.
Charlotte Reproductive Action Network and National Organization for Women also urged members to attend the meeting, but to support the ordinance. In purple and white clothes, they held signs that read “harassment is not free speech.”
Most speakers at the City Council meeting mentioned abortion clinics, but they aren’t the only facilities that have filed noise complaints. Julie Eiselt, Charlotte mayor pro tem, said the city received a total of 9,700 complaint this year: 483 from medical facilities, 653 from schools and 57 from houses of worship.
Other sound complaints came in about loud garbage trucks and construction sites and another 1,400 in 2018 were about entertainment venues and bars with outdoor patio space.
The new sound ordinance will change the way police officers measure the volume of music, potentially resulting in more violations. And, the new ordinance allows for construction sites near neighborhoods to be deemed a “chronic noise producer,” resulting in stiffer penalties.
The ordinance doesn’t mention anti-abortion protesting. But Rev. Peter Ascik, an assistant priest at St. Matthew Catholic Church and volunteer at Charlotte Truth and Life Coalition, said it targets the exact locations where anti-abortion advocates protest.
“It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to outlaw swimming in pools in a city. I’m not outlawing swimming in the city, just the pools...’ You’re actually burdening the activity,” said Ascik.
But Calla Hales, director at a Preferred Woman’s Health Center, said it’s “not true at all” that the ordinance is pointed toward limiting anti-abortion protesting.
“City council members went out of their way to make sure that they really were listening to sound issues as a whole,” she said.
If the noise ordinance were directed just at the protesters, Hales said, the City Council would have addressed the noise from protesters when she first asked for ordinance changes nearly three years ago.
Hales said the noise worsens patient health.
“They’re already anxious, they’re more upset, their blood pressures are higher. We’re having deal with now new symptoms that they may not have had coming in,” she said.
And it’s not just the patients, Hales said. She said the noise is “jarring” for the clinic staff. She also said vendors are less likely to work with the clinic. Hales said protesters tell the vendors they’re “helping the baby killers.”
But anti-abortion activists are worried the noise ordinance will limit their ability to communicate with people visiting the abortion clinic and offer them services.
Ascik, of the Charlotte Truth and Life Coalition, said anti-abortion activists help pregnant people access diapers, formula, counselors and doctors in the city. He mentioned that they educate people visiting the clinic about groups like MiraVia, which offers pregnancy-related classes, materials and a residential program for pregnant college students.
Ascik said that sound amplification is a normal tool for outdoor events because of ambient noise, such as from passing traffic. Without amplifiers, he’s worried that people coming to the clinic may not be able to hear his message at all.
After city council members first took their seats, the group of about seven demonstrators stormed in for approximately two and a half minutes.
The city council called a recess and the demonstrators chanted: “Women are the working class, we won’t stand to be harassed” and “Women struggle to be free, give it up, CMPD.”
“The city of Charlotte and police have allowed anti-abortion protesters to harass Charlotte women outside women’s clinics each day, every day,” a protester standing below them said. “This noise ordinance will not change this. In fact, it will harm progressive and revolutionary movements,” he said.
Police spokesman Harris said police officers gave the demonstrators multiple verbal warnings before arresting three, who were later charged with disrupting an official meeting. At least one protester was pinned to the ground in the government center lobby, while the rest of the group managed to run away from the scene.
Returning to her seat after the arrests, Mayor Vi Lyles said that it was her first time seeing a disruption like it.
According to the council’s policy, Lyles said, anyone who interrupts and refuses to leave an official meeting is guilty of a class 2 misdemeanor.
“When we have incidents like this, it is a little bit of a shock to us,” she said.
Staff writers Teo Armus, Brooklynn Cooper and Anna Pogarcic contributed to this story.