Buses, Palestine, Israel and Free Speech in Chapel Hill

I'm surprised no one has yet posted comments about the following article by Mark Schultz that appeared in Chapel Hill News. Chapel Hill Town Council has taken many principled positions on contentious national issues such as gay rights or gun control, to name two. Why not Palestine? Where does this community stand on the issue of free speech? Why is it OK to take positions on some issues, but not others? In this case the town itself is not actually taking a position, but allowing a local church to pay for ads that say the following: “Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.” It's a simple message quite in keeping with many of the values Chapel Hillians hold dear. Should the town censor this particular kind of speech on town buses?

Town leaders will discuss their policy for bus advertising after an ad calling for an end of U.S. military aid to Israel drew complaints.

The ad, which appeared inside nearly 100 buses for about 10 days this month, read: “Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.”



The Chapelboro story (http://chapelboro.com/Citing-Procedure-CHT-Removes-Controversial-Bus-Ad-...) emphasized that the procedural problems with the ads were the reason the ads came down, not the content.In response to your question, I guess the town council could make any statement it wanted on Palestine. But the town's views shouldn't affect who can advertise on the buses.

that the town's views shouldn't affect who can advertise on buses. If it was a procedural mix-up, then that is one thing. But if the procedural mix-up was a technical excuse spurred on by ridership complaints, well, that's unfortunate. It reminds me of the banner that Top of the Hill flew from its balcony after 9/11: "God Bless America, Woe to its Enemies". The Town Council made them remove the sign "because of its size," not because of its content. Really? This community will not always agree on everything. I would hope that CH would aspire to lead by example and welcome respectful political speech, even when the speech is contrary to views held by some citizenry. As someone else said earlier, "Bring a nook." BTW, personally I found the Wells Fargo ads on the outside of buses to be much more aggressive, but even then, I felt that if we were going to allow advertising to offset the cost of free ridership (a sound fiscal move in a tight economy IMHO), then fair is fair and we should allow bright red stage coaches to barrel through town on carolina blue buses.

I wonder how many of the folks who are complaining about the ads would have complained about a "Pro-Choice" ad from Planned Parenthood, should they have chosen to advertise on our busses. Of if a church had bought an ad that said "End the war in Iraq/Afghanistan" would that have triggered a flood of complaints?  Of course not. I know that we consider Chapel Hill to be a 'liberal paradise' sometimes, but that doesn't mean you don't ever have to hear/see things you disagree with. Is that what Chapel Hill stands for? Innoclulating all political speech. I just hope the same night council bans these ads, they also vote to condemn fracking, or Amendment One. "According to a copy of the policy, the town will not accept: false, misleading, deceptive or disrespectful ads; ads that imply the town endorses their message; and ads that are obscene"Additionally, it is absurd to suggest that the ads in question came close to violating the letter or spirit of the above policy. However, should the ad have had an image of a Palestinian child, graphically wounded from Israeli/US weapons, that would be innappropriate and would violate the policy. Then the "captive rider" would have a legitimate complaint, for now though it's just words he disagrees with.Bring a kindle on the bus and deal with it.  

I just learned about this a few days ago and I'm so glad you posted about it, Barbara. (I've front-paged your post.)I think it's very sketchy (at best) that the town rejected these ads after leting them run and then getting complaints. If the address were really an issue, how was the ad approved in the first place? It seems more like an objection to the content. Not only should they restore these ads, I would like to see the Town staff apologize to the Church of Reconciliation for this heavy-handed response.

Rudy, I read somewhere (I think an earlier story on Chapelboro) that the usual staff person was on vacation, so someone else approved the non-confirming ads. When the appropriate staffer returned from vacation, he/she caught the mistake. The church folks seem to be confident that the ads will be reposted as soon as they are corrected.

I appreciate your putting this discussion out there for folks.

I'm not so certain that the ads will be able to go back up quietly and that this issue will die. 

You think the Town of Chapel Hill will overreact to controversial political expression?

How is this different than enforcing Chapel Hull's sign ordinance against Top of the Hill's "Woe to Our Enemies" banner?It is a screw up that a non-compliant ad ran on the bus in the first place, but once there was a complaint, the rules did have to be enforced.

One important difference is that, in the Top of the HIll case, the Town Council responded to the noncompliance by revisiting the town's sign ordinance and loosening restrictions on noncommercial signage, whereas now some council members seem to want to respond by tightening restrictions on noncommercial signage. (Of course, the previous case involved signs on private property and the present case involves paid advertisements on public property.)

But what they have in common is that the government is enforcing a content-neutral rule.  I don't see a problem in either case.

Agreed. The staff's enforcement of the rule is straightforward. It's the potential response by the Town Council that's worrying, if the quotations in that article are any indication. 

When elected officials respond to this by talking about the importance of Israel to Jews (as Penny was quoted in the article) it makes it harder to believe that this action was content neutral.Hopefully the Town will make this right by approving the updated ads, and apologizing for their mistake. If so, then I'll believe that this didn't happen because some people complained about the content of the ads. 

The town definitely should have pulled the ads once they were found to be in noncompliance. But as Damon and Ruby are alluding to, and I think as we'll see, the council may move to act on a broader policy 

Thanks, for those who didn't follow the link, I'm pasting the statement below. The statement from last Friday says the ads would be reinstated last weekend. Anyone seen them?

Chapel Hill Transit AdvertisingPosted Date: 8/31/2012The Town has received numerous emails expressing a variety of opinions concerning a recent paid advertising message on Chapel Hill Transit buses. The Town values the open expression of opinions. We have provided some brief background information for you. We have also provided the emails to our Town Council, and they can be seen in total at http://councilmail.townofchapelhill.org/searchform.do. The emails are being forwarded to the paid sponsor of the advertising. The Town Council in 2011 authorized exterior bus advertising to go along with previously permitted interior bus advertising to help offset the local taxpayer contribution to the cost of the Town’s transit system. At that time the Town Council also adopted a policy for paid bus advertising that allows political, religious and “issues” advertising as long as the ad carries a disclaimer identifying who has paid for the ad along with contact information. Political, religious and issue advertising is also subject to the same restrictions as other advertising, as listed in Section 3.01 of the policy. Consistent with the adopted policy, Town staff accepted a paid interior bus sign that stated "Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel." The ad came from the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill. The contract set the display period from Aug. 15, 2012, through Aug. 19, 2013. The ads are to be posted in 98 buses. Upon review, the advertisement was removed from all buses on Aug. 23, 2012, because the required disclaimer (which must include contact information) did not appear on the original ad. The Church of Reconciliation was informed that it must revise its advertisement to comply with the current advertisement policy. Now that the advertiser has made the necessary adjustment(s), the ad will be placed in buses this weekend on or around Sept. 1, 2012. More about Chapel Hill Transit Advertising (including the advertising policy) is available at http://www.townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?page=1904 

The ads are back up: http://t.co/cYzpyEMX

Apparently, a petition will be presented to the Town Council at their Wednesday meeting calling for the removal of religious and political advertising on the town buses. If the council were unanimous, they could take action that night. If you support free speech or free buses (which are, in part, funded by advertising), consider emailing before Wednesday.

Wow, what a bad idea! Who is bringing the petition? 

From Chapelboro (http://chapelboro.com/Jewish-Community-Members-Prepare-To-Talk-About-Bus...):"According to town council member Penny Rich, the Jewish community will petition the council to change the current policy to accept commercial ads only, and not political ads." 

Well, I don't recall being consulted by these petitioners! (I'm Jewish too.)It would be one thing if the ads called for the elimination of Israel, which surely would hard some people, but this states a policy position about money and militarism. In addition, the ad is really innocuous looking and not threatening in anyway.I can certainly see how some people might not agree with what the ad says, but that is not grounds to prevent the advertisers from having their say. This kind of public, civil discussion is the very essence of the kind of free speech required by our democratic form of government. I find it apalling that Jews especially won't stand for a clear-headed discussion of Israel and Palestine, and it's just this kind of tactic that makes me lose sympathy for the "Israeli cause."

I'm with Penny on this one.    I speak as a member of the Jewish community and my mother - who is a holocaust survivor - lives in town.  While she and I do not always agree on Israeli politics, it is s strong, emotional topic for her and I could not imagine her enduring a ride on a bus with an ad that seeks to end military aid to Israel.  I'm sure she'd be happy to discuss her views with the Church. She's well informed and passionate.  While some may disagree with policies of Israel - to members of the Jewish community - like my mother  - who are strongly pro-Israel -   the ads are uncomfortable and divisive.  It seems that there are more constructive ways for the church to express its views in the community - and hopefully will include  the Jewish community in the discussion.   My mother likes to remind me of the geography of the Middle East and how  Israel sits in the center of the Arab world. . I hope the council takes the ads down for good.   Bonnie Hauser

I disagree strongly with the position that the ad is taking. But, if that is the basis for not allowing it to be put up, what can be advertised on the bus? Wells Fargo? Nope. Chick-fil-a? Obviously not. Boy Scouts? Girl Scouts? The Y? Planned Parenthood? Race for the Cure? All of these offend a substantial portion of our town.Heck, I volunteer to train dogs for the blind and there are some in this town that object to using dogs in this manner. Does that mean that guide dogs shouldn't be allowed on the bus?  

I haven’t paid close attention in a while to the content of ads on buses, but I thought there was an ad from some church spotlighting its progressivism over the years and that it welcomes same-sex couples. Given that marriage is still a contentious political issue, should those messages be permitted?

I'm fine with the ad. As a Jew, I do not find a problem with opposing views on israel. I would find it extremely shortsighted to cut off political and issue advertising. Back in the early days of CHT overt political advertising was allowed -- I paid to have my campaign posters on the buses in 75, 77 and 79 I am 99% sure. Unless there is some overt appeal to violence or racism, I'm fine with any kind of ads in the buses. I am sorry if the ads are uncomfortable to some. A reduction of revenues and an eventual reduction of bus service would be more uncomfortable to me.

I'm all in favor of the bus ads helping pay for this "free" transportation system that does not serve my CH neighborhood. The more ads the merrier. In fact, if the Jewish community has a good peace theme for the mess in Israel put up a bus ad. Hell, I wouldn't mind the SCV putting up a bus sign lamenting the lost cause, as long as something helped the cause of the bus system, and I'm the local commander of the SUV.It is a common tactic to defend a point of view by seeking to eliminate all other points of view that diasgree with you. Usually we don't approve of that in our country but a lot of pressure can fall upon local elected officials who may just want it all to go away in these situations. I agree with JAN, where would it all end?

As you might expect, many other transit agencies have grappled with this issue previously. A recent example comes from the Washington Metro, which if you ride the bus or particularly Metrorail, you will see all sorts of political ads as well as extremely niche advertising for defense industry vendors, aimed at a handful of procurement officers who ride the train to work.Here's the article:Metro: Anti-Obama ad at Clarendon rail station is protected speech and will stay  


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