CHAPEL HILL — Are local buses public forums, and if they are, should the town continue to let groups run political and religious advertising on them?
The Chapel Hill Town Council was left to consider those questions hursday night after hearing more than two hours of impassioned public comment.
Most speakers argued for keeping the current policy, and many council members appeared to agree.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the policy at the very least might have to explicitly acknowledge the nature of buses as public forums. There will be other challenges in the future, he said.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative, for example, recently contacted the town about running an exterior bus ad that implies Muslims are savages. It reads, “In any war between civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Both Washington, D.C., and New York City’s transit agencies rejected the ad but lost their respective court cases and were required to post it.
Chapel Hill’s policy currently states buses are not public forums, but council member Laurin Easthom referenced a recent letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina that notes court judgments overruling similar local policies. The council may have unintentionally made the buses a public forum by allowing political and religious ads, she said.
Council member Donna Bell said she didn’t think there would be any political or religious ads that someone wouldn’t find offensive. If the staff can’t gauge the level of offense, the town can continue the policy or stop accepting ads altogether, she said.
“We have decided to do this in support of revenue, and it sounds like a large number of people in Chapel Hill would rather be comfortable on their bus than to generate that revenue,” Bell said.
Aid to Israel
More than 30 of the approximately 80 people at Thursday’s meeting spoke about the town’s policy or the ad posted in August that started the controversy.
That ad, paid for by the Church of the Reconciliation, shows pair of Palestinian and Israeli grandfathers holding their grandchildren with the message, “Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.”
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Davidson, said the ads were posted to initiate discussion of a U.S. policy that sends $3.1 billion to Israel. The church’s website calls the policy a barrier to Mideast peace.
Many speakers argued the town should keep the ads and allow free expression on its buses. Resident John Heinemeier said he saw firsthand how U.S. money is used by the Israeli military to aid West Bank settlement expansion – “one of the destabilizing and most peace-resistant facts in the very precarious relationship between the Palestinians and Israelis.”
“I choose as a citizen that my tax dollars are not going to enable the establishment of more settlements in the occupied territories,” he said.
Opponents questioned why the ads single out Israel when other countries receive aid with one hand while attacking America with the other. Others mentioned family members lost to the Holocaust and how the ads reopen painful wounds.
Resident Ken Weiss said the ad’s focus is discriminatory, and the response shows how sensitive the issue is for the community.
“These ads are a searing and painful reminder of (Holocaust) crimes, and so many in this town – survivors, children of survivors – understand that issue,” he said.
The church paid $774 to run 98 ads inside Chapel Hill Transit buses for one year. The ads were posted Aug. 15 and taken down Aug. 25, because they didn’t include the church’s contact information. The ads were reposted a few days later.
The town has allowed ads inside buses for several years, and exterior bus ads were added last year. The town’s policy requires political and religious ads to include contact information, and it refuses false, misleading, deceptive or disrespectful ads; ads that imply the town endorses their message; and ads that are obscene.
Transit staff reported that no ads have been rejected, although the church’s ad is the only paid non-commercial political ad submitted so far. Raleigh’s bus policy does not accept political ads.
Jared Resnick, a local businessman, said he and other business owners are concerned about what the ads cause and what they represent. He offered the community free use of his West Franklin Street event space once a month to discuss the issue.
“Let’s start again and let’s get back to what this community was built up on – discussion and reason,” Resnick said.