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Wilmington City Council tables noise disturbance ordinance following First Amendment concerns

Delaware Public Media

Wilmington City Council shelves an ordinance tightening restrictions on noise disturbances.

Councilman Nathan Field’s ordinance would prohibit “targeted” noise disturbances – classified as disturbances focused on a residence where the person or group involved are stationary in close proximity to that residence.

In a public safety committee meeting last week, Field said the intention is not to limit free speech, but Councilwoman Shané Darby says Field told her in a phone call the ordinance was a direct response to pro-Palestinian protesters outside Sen. Chris Coons’ residence.

One public commenter at the committee meeting, Mercedes Migliore, says she lives two doors away from Sen. Coons and doesn’t perceive what protesters are saying as peaceful, and questions the line between protesting, and heckling and harassment.

“That Sen. Coons murders children? I don’t think that being yelled over a megaphone is peaceful," Migliore says. "There are children that live two blocks from Sen. Coons the other way and they had to leave their house because the kids were trying to go to bed, and they started crying because thinking that somebody was going to come and get them in the middle of the night.”

Daisy Rivers says she also lives close to Sen. Coons’ house and has protested there several times.

“We are here because upwards of 40,000 people have died at the hands of these wealthy politicians who are ignoring the cries of their own people in their own city,” Rivers says. “This is our right and we deserve to be here, and we will continue to speak out exactly how we are. We are not scared by legislation like this.”

Councilman Chris Johnson says he and other council members are concerned about the legal implications of the ordinance.

“The ACLU rightfully chimed in, just about the concerns about First Amendment rights. And then how it also dovetails with our existing noise ordinances.”

At the committee meeting, City Solicitor Bob Goff said the ordinance is constitutional – noting it does not prohibit protesting or picketing, but prohibits using noise to target a residential address.

"What it does is balances the First Amendment to speech, in a way that conveys a message to the public," Goff says. "But it also, at the same time, takes into account another right that all of us have under the Constitution. And that is the right to privacy in our own homes under the Fourth Amendment. The right to peace and tranquility. The right to be able to put your baby to sleep in the middle of the day or in the evening... These are the complaints that I have received from folks that have to put up with this day after day, hour after hour."

Johnson and six other council members released a statement ahead of Thursday’s Council meeting applauding Field’s decision to table the ordinance amidst the public backlash.

“And even the subsequent follow ups since then, we’ve been contacted by, I would say hundreds of residents out against this ordinance.," Johnson says. "So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there are some serious questions and concerns. We are supportive of putting a pause on this and or completely just revamping how this is done. Our neighborhoods can be kept safe and can be tranquil for everyone, but there are First Amendment rights.”

Field declined request for additional comment on his decision.

Rachel Sawicki was born and raised in Camden, Delaware and attended the Caesar Rodney School District. They graduated from the University of Delaware in 2021 with a double degree in Communications and English and as a leader in the Student Television Network, WVUD and The Review.