On 9 November 2007, the Supreme Court gave its decision in a case where, in simplified terms, the right of one party to use loudspeakers was weighed against the annoyance, disturbance and harm caused to those other parties who are compelled against their will to listen to the amplified sounds which emanate from these loudspeakers. This judgment has been greatly acclaimed. However, some readers may not have had the opportunity of reading the entirety of the order, which contains much valuable information regarding the position of the law in respect of noise pollution, especially that caused by the inconsiderate use of loudspeakers. In the belief that more citizens should be made acquainted with the essence of the judgment, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) examines some of the highlights.
One issue considered by the Court was whether it was permissible to force members of the general public to become captive listeners – in violation of their right to silence and the quiet enjoyment of property – on the grounds that a noise, which is an annoyance to the neighbourhood, is protected if it is made in the course of a religious ceremony, particularly if the Police have issued a license for the use of loudspeakers under Section 90 of the Police Ordinance of 1865. The Court held that nobody can claim the fundamental right to create noise by amplifying the sound of his speech with the help of loudspeakers because, just as much as one has the right of speech, others have the right to listen or decline to listen. Nobody has the right to make his voice trespass into the ears or minds of others.
As for the religious aspect, the Court has stated clearly that no religious body is entitled, by reason of claimed religious practice, to commit a public nuisance. A police permit is not a protection against being charged for creating a public nuisance under Section 261 of the Penal Code. The Court has indicated that there is no requirement in the teachings of any religion that loudspeakers should be used in its rituals. Indeed, all of us know that, for a large proportion of the life of the major religions, loudspeakers did not even exist. Happily, judging by the letters appearing in our national newspapers, many of the complaints against Muslim loudspeaker noise come from Muslims themselves and many of the complaints against Buddhist loudspeaker noise come from Buddhists. There has not been much comment from the followers of the other religions, which may, perhaps, be taken as their acceptance of the reasonableness and fairness of the order of the Court.
Historically, there is reason to believe that the increasing use of loudspeakers in Sri Lanka for religious purposes owes its origin to a Atit-for-tat factor, which has built up over the years since the early 20th century, and that it is this factor that is at the heart of the competitive amplification of religious sounds. It is very much to be hoped for that this rivalry will cease as a result of the Supreme Court’s judgment. The Court also made it quite clear that Sri Lanka is a secular state and, constitutionally, protecting the environment and safeguarding public health require that there can be no exceptions to accommodate the perceived religious propensities of one group or another. The idea must not be entertained that an annoying noise is protected if it is made in the course of a religious ceremony. No religion advocates a practice that would cause harm to an-other or damage the environment or create a health hazard.
The Court also held that a great deal of harm is done to schoolchildren, whose studies are disturbed and to sick people, whose recovery from illness is retarded. It noted that noise can produce serious physical and psychological stress.
Even if a permit is given under Section 90 of the Police Ordinance, the noise emitted from the sound amplification equipment should not be allowed to extend beyond the precincts of the particular premises. This would apply to outdoor musical performances, too. A sufficient number of Police Officers should be designated and posted to the particular place of use to ensure that the conditions imposed are strictly complied with. This stipulation, if properly implemented, should take care of the absurd demands of those who donate amplifying equipment to temples, kovils, mosques and churches and then insist that the whole neighbourhood should be made aware of their philanthropy by broadcasting not only religious material but much other rubbish at ear-splitting levels of volume.
CIMOGG strongly deplores the opportunistic efforts of certain persons who have tried to make cheap political capital out of this issue in order to gain the votes of religious noise-makers and the outdoor musical fraternity.
We believe that any remnants of ill-informed opposition to the order of the Supreme Court should be eradicated by all senior religious leaders stating categorically that the use of loudspeakers is not required for the practice of their respective religions other than to reach their congregations within the boundaries of their premises. Musical artistes should hold their outdoor performances in open ground, away from residential areas, as is done in countries which do not tolerate any forms of public nuisance.