Bus ads spark free speech debate

This ad, sponsored by the Church of Reconciliation, appears on about 100 Chapel Hill Transit buses.

By Jane Porter

Representatives of the triangle Jewish community are planning to request that the Chapel Hill town council review the kinds of ads the town allows on buses. That’s a reaction to a controversial advertisement now posted in more than 90 buses that criticizes U.S. government aid to Israel.

Town leaders pulled the ad briefly because it didn’t say who paid for it, but now the church that sponsored it has revised it and put it back up.

Carrboro resident Megan Hucks is headed home. She’s noticed a lot of Church ads on the bus recently, but this is the first time she’s seen the one calling for the end of U.S. Military aid to Israel.
“I think that’s really a bit too intense for the bus,” Hucks says. “They pay to advertise, so it’s their right. It’s their freedom of speech, but there should be lines, I guess, for what can be advertised on public transit.”

The Presbyterian Church of Reconciliation paid for the ads on 98 buses. The pastor of the 350-member Church, Mark Davidson, says the ad’s message has become an important issue to his congregation.

“We are a church that takes very seriously our vocation to be peacemakers and the name of our church in the Church of Reconciliation,” Davidson says. “We’ve always been involved in reconciliation from our founding days as a church and committed to racial reconciliation in the South.”

Davidson says the church decided to run the ad on Chapel Hill buses because it’s an inexpensive way to reach a lot of people.

“It’s a public space for ads that can be used as, we hope, to be a catalyst for conversation on this issue, for education, and informing the public,” Davidson says.

So far, some of that conversation has been negative.

Executive Director of the Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish Federation, Steven Schauder, wants the town to consider banning politically divisive ads.

“Israel has deep meaning for members of the Jewish community and we don’t feel that the ads are really serving Chapel Hill well,” Schauder says.

He feels that commuters make up a captive audience, and that they can’t escape the messages of advertisements once they’re on the bus- and that’s a violation of passengers’ rights.

“Other communities have seen that when you start allowing political ads, then what’s to prevent someone from saying that anti-gay ads, ads against gay people, or ads against planned parenthood,” Schauder says.

Some cities, including Raleigh, already ban non-commercial advertising. UNC Media Law Instructor Elizabeth Woolery says such bans COULD violate the First Amendment, but there ARE ways for cities to enact bans legally.

“If Chapel Hill were to institute a policy where they banned any advertisement that was not commercial in nature, they could do that,” Woolery says. “They would just need to consider that the restrictions be reasonable, and be viewpoint-neutral. That’s how those regulations would pass muster.”

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.

For Megan Hucks, the answer seems clear.

“If there’s anything like, you know, on a free public bus that’s going to offend people, they should probably take it down,” Hucks says.


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