ACLU, Teamsters challenge Detroit noise law

Wednesday, January 6, 1999

Newspaper workers protesting the labor practices of The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press filed a federal lawsuit last month challenging a city ordinance that forbids “annoying” or “disturbing” noises.

For the past two years, striking employees from the two daily newspapers have picketed in front of the office building the two newspapers share in downtown Detroit. On some occasions, the striking workers blew whistles as part of a “Blow the Whistle on Corporate Greed” campaign.

Three newspaper workers and a representative of Teamsters International claim in the lawsuit that city officials threatened to arrest protesters for violating the city's noise ordinance.

On Dec. 23, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in eastern Michigan. The ACLU also asked the court for a preliminary injunction to halt enforcement of the ordinance until the case is heard.

“Laws like the Detroit noise ordinance have a chilling effect upon expression protected by the First Amendment,” said Ralph Simpson, president of the Metropolitan Detroit Branch of the ACLU. “Citizens are less likely to join a picket line or protest if they are afraid that a police officer might arbitrarily arrest them for making noise that someone might consider annoying.”

Some 2,500 workers represented by six union locals walked out of the two newspapers, which publish under a joint operating agreement as Detroit Newspapers Inc., in July 1995. On Feb. 14, 1997, the unions made an unconditional offer to end the walkout, which the newspaper company accepted.

But the unions contend the company has, by its actions, since rejected their offer, retaining more than 1,200 replacement workers and leaving few jobs open to employees formerly on strike.

In September, the National Labor Relations Board found the company guilty of 14 unfair labor practices and ordered all locked-out workers returned to their former salaries and positions. Detroit Newspapers has appealed the ruling.

In the meantime, protests continue, including occasional “whistle-blowing.” Plaintiff Michael Zielinski, a representative of Teamsters, said the whistles have been effective.

“It is one of the best ways we know to make the public aware of the fact that more than 1,000 members of the Detroit community are still illegally locked out of their jobs,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

Calls to the city of Detroit's Law Department were not returned.

But a Detroit attorney assisting the ACLU and the Teamsters in this case says he's confident the courts will overturn such an ambiguous law.

“The Detroit noise ordinance is unconstitutionally vague because the determination of what is annoying is completely subjective,” said Marshall Widick of the law firm Sachs, Waldman, O'Hare, Bogas & McIntosh. “The courts have declared that such laws violate the Constitution because they leave citizens, police officers, judges and juries in the dark about what the ordinance prohibits or permits.”