CHAPEL HILL — The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has urged Chapel Hill leaders to let controversial ads stay on local buses.
ACLU Legal Director Christopher Brook wrote in a letter Friday that his group has received complaints from several residents who “don’t want to see their community suppress free speech and dialogue.”
Chapel Hill instead should “serve as a model for other North Carolina communities by embracing the free exchange of ideas, even when controversial,” he said.
The ads, which started running in mid-August on Chapel Hill Transit buses, read: “Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.”
A Town Council vote to remove the ads or change the policy to prohibit political ads would be an unconstitutional gag on free speech, Brook said. It also would violate a longstanding Chapel Hill tradition of openness and dialogue, he said.
Chapel Hill has never rejected an ad, and removing these ads doesn’t serve any “compelling government interest,” he said. If the council tries to create a neutral policy banning all political advertisements, it would be motivated only by opposition to this specific ad, Brook said.
The letter also argues that local buses are public forums, because of the town’s stated policy, which allows political, religious and “issues” advertising if the ad also carries a disclaimer identifying who paid for the ad and their contact information.
The Church of Reconciliation, a Presbyterian USA church in Chapel Hill, paid to run 98 ads but did not include the church’s contact information. The ads were removed after 10 days, revised and reposted in early September.
The town has received deluge of emails about whether political and religious ads belong on public buses. Opponents and supporters also mounted a strong public response at the Sept. 12 council meeting. Opponents petitioned the council to remove the ads, calling them offensive to Jews. Supporters also petitioned the council, arguing the ads are a protected form of free speech.
Council member Penny Rich, whom the ACLU letter specifically calls out for her opposition to the ads, said the ACLU’s letter is just another opinion. While she wants to see the report from town staff and Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos first, Rich said doesn’t see local buses “as a place where political ads do anyone any good.”
“We have people from a different perspective, we have people hurt by this ad, and we have people who say it’s a conversation opener,” Rich said. Jewish people have never stopped talking about how to get along and how to make peace, said Rich, who is Jewish.
“You don’t hurt people to have a conversation opener,” but it can stop the conversation, she said.
Council member Laurin Easthom said she understands that some people might find the ad “uncomfortable and problematic,” but the letter raises several good issues. Easthom said she, too, is waiting for the staff report, but she agrees the council is in a position where it might not be able to change the policy.
“What we’ve done is created a forum with certain restrictions,” Easthom said. “As long as you pay the fee, you have a right to put it up there.”