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ACLU says banning controversial bus ad would violate First Amendment


A public hearing is scheduled to discuss political bus ads like the one above.

After weeks of debate, a divisive bus ad on Chapel Hill Transit buses is still causing controversy.

And now, with a Chapel Hill Town Council special meeting about the ads scheduled for Oct. 11, the American Civil Liberties Union has spoken out in defense of free speech.

In an open letter sent to Chapel Hill town officials Oct. 1, the ACLU said banning the advertisements would be a violation of free speech.

“The law says you cannot restrict speech in public forums because of its content, because of its viewpoint,” said Chris Brook, legal director of ACLU-North Carolina. “Any efforts to bar this would be unconstitutional.”

Brook said the ACLU was contacted by town residents who were concerned about a possible ban on political advertisements.

He said the residents believe banning bus ads would suppress open dialogue in Chapel Hill — a traditional value of the town.

“Chapel Hill has never rejected a proposed advertisement for their buses,” Brook said.

The ad features a Palestinian man and an Israeli man, both holding their grandchildren. The caption reads “Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.”

The ad is sponsored by the Church of Reconciliation as part of the national “Be On Our Side” campaign, which argues that foreign aid to Israel is perpetuating the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor of the Church of Reconciliation, said the advertisement is pro-Palestine — but he said it also is pro-Israel, pro-America and pro-peace.

Town councilman Lee Storrow said policy should remain content neutral. He said it is very unlikely that only this ad will be banned.

But Storrow said the council could revise town policy on political advertisements in public places based on the responses of residents.

He said he was impressed by the diverse opinions residents offered on the issue.

“I have found it really helpful to close my mouth and open my ears on this issue,” said Storrow.

Chapel Hill resident Larry Slifkin said he objects to the ad.

“I ride the bus to have a peaceful 10 minutes,” he said. “Not to be upset by somebody’s opinionated points of view, whether right or wrong.”

Jane Stein, another Chapel Hill resident, said the ad should remain on the bus in order to protect speech.

She said the discussion about the ad is important.

“Chapel Hill has a responsibility because of its history for being more progressive and more accepting of diverse viewpoints,” she said.

Storrow said the large number of responses is in part caused by the emotional nature of the issue.

“Issues around religious rights and freedom of speech are always going to have an emotional element for some residents,” he said.

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