Chapel Hill delays bus ad decision

Input sought from transit partners UNC and Carrboro

tgrubb@newsobserver.comNovember 6, 2012 

  • The story so far The town of Chapel Hill’s bus advertising policy, as amended last year, prohibits most religious and political ads. Town Manager Roger Stancil and Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos discovered last month that Chapel Hill Transit was using an old version of the policy. That’s how a controversial ad calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel slipped through the cracks. The Town Council voted Oct. 24 to suspend the ad program but allow existing ads to remain until their contracts run out, including the Church of Reconciliation ad that ignited the debate.

— The Town Council could decide Dec. 3 what to do with its bus advertising policy after asking Carrboro and UNC, its partners in Chapel Hill Transit, what they think.

Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos offered the council five options Monday:

• Continue with an old version of the policy erroneously used for the past 16 months.

• Reaffirm the policy approved in June 2011 that prohibits most religious and political ads.

• Make the buses a public forum with limited restrictions.

• Eliminate most noncommercial paid ads.

• Allow only ads from government and nonprofit groups receiving government money.

Of 20 people who spoke Monday, more than half asked the council to leave the policy alone.

Council member Jim Ward argued for limiting the town’s legal exposure by reaffirming the approved policy and then talking with its transit partners.

“It is critical to the health and welfare of Chapel Hill Transit that we work in partnership with UNC and the town of Carrboro and not act unilaterally,” he said.

Members Penny Rich and Gene Pease joined Ward in voting in favor of using the town’s approved policy.

Council members Lee Storrow, Laurin Easthom and Ed Harrison voted against instituting the approved policy, in part because Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and council members Donna Bell and Matt Czajkowski were absent.

Easthom also said her opinion also has evolved during the debate. The town’s stated policy has made buses a public forum, she said.

“I do feel like it’s a free-speech issue. We’ve opened it up, and I don’t want to close that door, so I am not supportive of this particular resolution,” she said.

If the Church of Reconciliation’s ad remains, the town will have to accept opposing viewpoints, Karpinos said. The church paid $774 in August to run its ad on 98 buses for ayear. The ad, part of a national campaign, shows a 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 American Freedom Defense Initiative has submitted an ad to the town with an opposing message: “In any war between civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Karpinos said the council is not bound by staff’s use of the wrong policy, but freezing the situation is not remaining neutral.

“The facts of every case are different, but I believe if you act promptly now to go back and affirm your policy of June 2011, I think we’re going to be on reasonably safe, legal grounds,” Karpinos said.

Chris Brook, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, offered the council a different perspective. For two years, the town operated under a policy that allowed political advertising with very limited restrictions, he said.

“Applying an inoperative policy for the first time to bar a controversial political advertisement, after ... allowing other political advertisements, would without question be unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination,” Brook said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service