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Ban the Boom?

By Scott Tibbs, February 15, 2007

We appear to be in the midst of an organized letter-writing campaign regarding noise in Bloomington, specifically the dreaded "boom cars". People are calling on Mayor Mark Kruzan and the City Council to do something about what they find to be an epidemic of noise. It will be interesting to see if this becomes an issue in this year's city elections.

Personally, I think this has been blown way out of proportion and some of the letter writers are acting like drama queens.

This is not to say I disagree with the notion that government should step in when automobiles or parties are excessively loud. The classic position of those who believe in limited government is that someone can do whatever he wants until he violates the person or property of someone else. The overly-simplified version of this is "you can swing your fist as much as you want until you hit my nose."

I am an ardent supporter of the liberties protected by the First Amendment, but I am not opposed to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on the exercise of those rights. If someone's party is so loud that it prevents neighbors from sleeping, studying or relaxing, then it is legitimate for government to step in and regulate the volume (but not the content) of the music being played. I think very few people would disagree with the argument that it should not be legal to be overly disruptive to the personal space of another's home.

Some of letter-writers take such an extreme position, though, that it turns off even those who support reasonable restrictions on noise. Jan Zimmerman writes about "horrific, disturbing, vibrating, polluting noise" and how she has to "cringe" until the car gets out of range. She wants to "get even with them" by having the Mayor and City Council pass a "boom box law". George Wentworth wants to "end noise terrorism", and Robert Owen writes of "a domestic terrorist mentality."

Sometimes when I read these letters I wonder if I am living in the same city as the letter writers.

It should be noted that Bloomington already has a noise ordinance that is enforced as part of the city's "Quiet Nights" program. Are the anti-noise activists aware of this program, or are they advocating for a more strict noise ordinance? Do they expect total silence from automobile stereo systems?

I have to be somewhat careful to not be overly disruptive to my own neighbors, as my Rat Terrier mix fancies himself to be a guard dog. He will get very loud when someone is walking down the street, especially if it is one of the many dog owners taking their own pets for a walk. Nano understands that when I open the door, he is to come inside, although he is occasionally a lot slower than I would prefer. I need to remain vigilant in bringing him back inside when he gets loud, and not to let him out in the first place when it is clear that the only thing he wants to do is bark at something or someone.

I firmly believe that much of this can be taken care of by reasonable, civil discussion between neighbors. Across the street from me is a small apartment complex; most of the apartments are occupied by people who appear to be in their 20's. A few weeks ago, we had a knock on our front door. One of our neighbors from across the street was going to have a party, and he wanted us to let him know if the party got too loud and was disturbing. It was a very nice gesture that my wife and I greatly appreciated.

The answer to the problem of noise in Bloomington is not another law; the answer is for more common courtesy. That courtesy has to go both ways, though. Those who like to play their music loud should consider what effect the volume of their car or party has on neighbors. It is also important for people to be tolerant of a reasonable amount of noise. Teenagers and people in their early 20's are going to have loud parties and loud music. This is normal. Setting reasonable expectations on volume, as opposed to expecting total silence, is the common ground we should seek.

At the end of the day, both sides of the dispute over loud parties and "boom cars" need to follow the words of Jesus Christ: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Matthew 22:39)