Students enrolled in Gonzaga’s Legal Clinic learned the value of collaboration in a case involving the free speech rights of street musicians.
Moreover, due to their persistence and creativity, the city of Spokane, Washington, recently adopted a new public-nuisance noise ordinance.
The case began when a musician challenged the city’s old ordinance, which was based largely on the Washington State Administrative Code.
“The code was fairly vague,” said third-year student Darryl Colman, who worked on the case in fall 2009. “Basically, it said the sound couldn’t be annoying, and it couldn’t exceed environmental sound levels.”
“Obviously, that doesn’t work, because the musician needs to play louder than the surrounding noise to be heard,” said Professor Terrence Sawyer, who oversaw Colman’s efforts.
To define an acceptable level of human-caused noise on downtown streets, the GU students engaged musicians, the City of Spokane, the city’s downtown business association, and students from Gonzaga University’s Communications Department.
Christopher Church, a former Thomas More Scholar at Gonzaga and now a staff attorney with the Georgia Supreme Court, had opened the case under the supervision of now-Acting Dean George Critchlow.
Taking the collaborative route
Critchlow and Church chose a collaborative approach.
“We have good a good relationship with city hall,” Critchlow said; “we felt we had a better chance of success if we worked with them and not against them.”
The city agreed.
“We have learned that whenever we have an ordinance that affects certain segments of society, you have to engages all sides if you hope to reach a workable solution,” said Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo, himself a graduate of Gonzaga Law.
A third party, the Downtown Spokane Partnership, joined the discussions, which aimed to curtail inappropriate public noise, while preserving the individual’s right to free speech.
Church researched existing civic noise ordinances before finally deciding to use as a template one another Washington City had recently developed.
However, even that document lacked a precise measurement for appropriate, human-created noise in a public setting.
Grad students lend a hand
Church set out to solve that problem with the help of students from Gonzaga Professor Mike Fitzsimmons’ graduate communications classes.
Using sound meters, they established a baseline of ambient sound on downtown streets. They then determined the level of additional sound that would be necessary to be audible above the ambient sound at 50 feet.
The parties finally agreed to restrict human-caused sound to the ambient noise level plus 10 decibels.
“We would never have been able to get that result by litigating,” Critchlow said. “If we had litigated, then you’d have an appellate court tearing its hair out trying to determine the appropriate level of sound.”
Valuable lessons learned
As a practicing attorney, Piccolo termed the experience “invaluable” for Church and Colman.
“In this process, they learned about the need to do your research and draft memoranda,” he said.
“And then they got to the nitty-gritty of being a lawyer; researching the ordinances, meeting with the other side, interacting with city staff and the Downtown Spokane Partnership.
“They had a chance to see what practicing attorneys have to go through … and hopefully they learned that you’re not always in an adversarial relationship.”
Critchlow pointed to another key lesson.
“It was a perfect representation of what goes on in the world, in terms of how the powerful interface with the relatively powerless. It showed the value of having a lawyer on your side.