A Chapel Hill Town Council meeting the other night turned into quite a discussion of U.S. foreign policy, and that was a victory of sorts for members of the Church of Reconciliation. The Presbyterian church in Chapel Hill had, after all, paid to place ads in local transit buses with the expressed aim of spurring debate over assistance the United States provides to Israel.
With the tagline of “Build peace and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel,” the ads took a clear position on an issue of public policy. Just the sort of thing, you might think, that would be taken in stride by a college town that prides itself on its openness to speech, debate and even sharp disagreement.
But that wouldn’t be taking into account the searing heat that the Middle East can generate, even in an American college town.
Were the ads a straightforward plea for peace – or part of an effort to delegitimize the Jewish state? They proved controversial right away, and though they’re up and about in the buses, the council plans a public hearing on the matter.
With all due respect, Mideast policy really isn’t the issue for the Town Council, which is properly wrestling with the boundaries of expression that should be permitted inside (and outside, presumably) Chapel Hill Transit's fleet of free (to riders) buses.
If it turns out that the Church of Reconciliation’s message, which would probably pass muster under any set of reasonable guidelines for bus ads, and which could be printed as is in just about any American newspaper, is too controversial for Chapel Hill, then endless trouble awaits the Town Council. What happens when someone wants to place an ad advocating more funds for Israel?
Really, if the council wishes to enact a consistent, defensible policy, it should decide not to accept any bus ads. Otherwise it will become the official judgment-passer, even censor, of a town with demonstrably delicate sensibilities.