You’d be forgiven if, at the moment, you’re trying to avoid the news. It’s all pretty grim reading. But today’s headlines include things such as “Government defends plans for noise limits at protests”, and “Silencing Black Lives Matter”, and that feels like a good moment for us to have a look at how any such restrictions could work acoustically – if they can work at all!

I promise, we’ll try to keep it light-hearted and not too political, but I will include links to the relevant background information for anyone who wants to delve a little more deeply into it.

Here’s what the amended legislation actually will say, and how I’d interpret it;

This all comes from Part 3 of the recently published Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which proposes amendments to existing legislation which I’ve attempted to summarise from a noise perspective here;

  • If the senior officer believes that protest noise will disrupt the activities of an organisation or may have a ‘relevant impact’ on persons nearby which may be ‘significant’, they can change the route of the procession or prohibit access to public space to prevent this.
  • A ‘relevant impact’ occurs if the noise may result in the intimidation or harassment of people in the area, or might cause serious unease, alarm or distress.

The conditions apply to protest marches, assemblies, and even “one-person protests”.

The legislation does provide a little bit of objective guidance to be taken into account when considering whether noise has a significant impact;

  • The likely number of people who may be impacted.
  • The duration of the impact.
  • The intensity of that impact.

What’s the Problem?

Well, apart from the potential issues with free speech and civil liberties, I’m concerned that such woolly, subjective guidance genuinely means that the legislation may be unenforceable, or certainly subject to challenge in court from protestors and those organising protests.

In noise terms, how do we know whether a disturbance has occurred? How on earth do you define the ‘intensity’ of that impact? And where’s the line – is it ok to impact 9 people but not 10? Is it fine to protest for two hours but not for three? What about the time of day the protest occurs?

Can noise itself cause unease, alarm and distress? Perhaps it can, if you’re letting off explosions or the noise is otherwise startling. But the unease caused by what people are shouting, for example, arguably isn’t a noise issue.

As and when cases arising from the use of this part of the new legislation come to court, and I’m certain they will, finding a way to quantifiably assess noise impact is going to be crucial.

How Can We Assess Protest Noise?

There are already well-established noise standards which we use to assess how noise will impact both on peoples’ ability to carry out their jobs in various environments, and on peoples’ ability to rest and relax in their homes and gardens. These are based on various studies which look at productivity as well as physical and mental health impacts of noise, and we use them as a basis when we are designing homes or workplaces. These can be used as a baseline, but of course temporary level increases and changes in the nature of noise are tolerable – for example when there are roadworks or construction works, or for a few days when a music festival takes place.

We also need to consider where the noise impact is assessed; a protest in Parliament Square may be incredibly noisy on the ground but it’s not likely to be clearly audible or disruptive to people working behind the sealed, toughened glass of Portcullis House or any other modern office building.

Noise can only really be considered to ‘disrupt the activities of an organisation’ if it is at a level which stops it going about its normal business – so perhaps at a level where speech and telephone communication is significantly impaired, or if you’re protesting outside a hospital and the noise levels could disrupt patients’ rest, for example. Here the duration of the impact matters too – disrupting a corporation for a couple of hours is of course the point of a protest. Disrupting the rest of hospital patients would be unacceptable to most of us.

Some Simple Suggestions

If you’re planning a protest, some suggestions to mitigate noise issues include;

  • Limiting protest to the ‘daytime’ hours under noise legislation of 7am-11pm.
  • Shout, chant, but don’t blast music or cause sudden startling noises (e.g. firecrackers) which could be considered ‘alarming’.
  • Make sure any amplified sound is under the control of the event organisers – ask people not to bring loudhailers or their own music.
  • Carry out a noise ‘risk assessment’ – could your protest cause noise disturbance to anyone who isn’t involved, and who might be particularly affected, such as a nearby care home or school? If so, can you find another location to mitigate this?

Putting Theory into Practice – Are You Planning A Protest?

This is an evolving issue, and whilst noise isn’t the only concern, the current lack of clarity around how this legislation will be used and implemented is something which we think needs to be challenged so that our lawful right to protest is protected. Ways in which dBx Acoustics might be able to help include;

  • Predicting noise impacts based on the proposed location and anticipated size of the demonstration.
  • Considering noise from any amplified sources e.g. music or stage/speakers.
  • Suggesting simple ways in which noise might be controlled without being silenced.
  • Measuring noise levels during protests.
  • Providing evidence based on existing noise guidance as to whether a ‘significant impact’ is likely to occur – either before a protest occurs, or based on measurements at events.
  • Liaising between protest organisers and police during event planning to discuss noise issues and agree any reasonable restrictions.

We at dBx Acoustics are genuinely interested in how this might pan out, so if you are planning a lawful and Covid-safe protest in the Manchester or London area and wouldn’t mind someone coming along as an observer to measure noise levels (no charge!), please do contact us. Or if you’re interested in commissioning us to assess your proposals or support your legal case, we’ll be extending our charitable discount rates to working on these issues anywhere in the UK.