By Anne Lowe

FREE SPEECH – City council members in Santa Monica are considering placing restrictions on decibel levels at the popular Third Street Promenade to control the level of noise produced by musicians on the street—without banning loud music altogether.

Bayside District Corporation, a public/private organization that manages the area, said the noise levels are “completely assaulting” and must be lowered. The Third Street Promenade is a public street, however, and performers on the street are protected under the First Amendment.

As reported by the Santa Monica Daily Press:

Making matters even trickier is a recent court ruling that struck down as unconstitutional the regulatory system for the Venice boardwalk that the city of Los Angeles put in place in 2008 that required performers and vendors to acquire permits via a lottery system in order to occupy spaces on the beachfront strip.

The court also invalidated an L.A. City Council rule that had banned the use of musical instruments and amplifiers in designated areas.??That means banning amplifiers on the promenade is off the table, Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said this week.

But there could still be ways to reign in the noise level. The maximum permitted decibel level on the promenade varies depending on the time of day but tops out at 107 dbl, and Moutrie said it's a possibility the council could choose to lower that threshold.

But to musicians who earn their living playing on the promenade, that move would come as unwelcome news.

Justine Bennett, a guitarist and singer who's a regular, said she tracks her volume level with a decibel measuring iPhone app. While she strives to stay below the limit, she said there's a financial incentive to turn it up.

"The louder you are, the more money you make," Bennett said.

While she's never received a ticket for violating the noise ordinance, she said police officers regularly monitor the musicians' noise levels and frequently warn performers to keep it down.

"They're always walking around and they take it very seriously," she said.

On Tuesday, the City Council gave no specific directions about a tougher noise ordinance for street performers but members indicated they were concerned about excessive volume.

"I think all of us want to strongly protect free speech and have this as free a forum as humanly possible," Councilman Richard Bloom said. "[But] in some respects I think we've got a problem."

The City Attorney's Office is expected to bring options for further limiting the noise level back to the council at a future meeting.