Virginia Supreme Court Declares Virginia Beach Noise Ordinance Unconstitutional

April 17, 2009

Thomas Jefferson Center and ACLU of Virginia filed amicus brief on behalf of club owners arguing that ordinance violates the First Amendment because of vagueness

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Virginia Beach, VA – The Virginia Supreme Court today struck down Virginia Beach's noise ordinance because it is unconstitutionally vague.  The ordinance prohibits "any unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary noise in the city" that "disturb[s] or annoy[s] the quiet, comfort or repose of reasonable persons."

"We are pleased with the Court's decision to strike down this law," said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. "Virginia Beach is free to control noise, but it must do so in a way that is reasonable and precise so as not leave residents and business owners guessing whether or not they are violating the law."

The case, Tanner v. Virginia Beach, was filed by Bradley Tanner and Eric Williams, owners of The Peppermint Beach Club in Virginia Beach, who were frequently cited under the ordinance.  The owners presented a broad range of evidence to show that the ordinance is vague and unevenly enforced.  Police witnesses admitted that they use their own subjective judgment to decide if someone is violating the ordinance. 

"The ordinance was not even clear to law enforcement officials," added Willis.  "The vagueness of the law left it wide open for abuse by police who were free to interpret it differently depending on whom they were applying the law to."

"Everyone benefits when laws are clear and unambiguous, and that is especially true when the First Amendment is implicated," said Willis.  "Hopefully, Virginia Beach's next noise ordinance will both protect free speech and give residents, business owners and law enforcement officials specific directions when noise is an issue."

Virginia Beach could correct its noise ordinance by stating a maximum decibel level at which sound can be heard at a specified distance from its source, as other localities have done.  In this way, there is a quantifiable method by which to decide if someone is being too loud.

The ACLU of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Tanner and Williams in December 2008 arguing that the ordinance violated the First Amendment.

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