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Bus ad policy scrutinized at Chapel Hill Town Council forum

At a public forum Thursday night, more than 30 local residents discussed Chapel Hill’s controversial bus advertising policy, with some calling for the end of political advertising.

The forum was held in response to a petition filed on Sept. 12 urging the Chapel Hill Town Council to revise its transit advertising policy after some residents were offended by the content of a widespread ad.

The ad — which runs on Chapel Hill Transit buses — that calls for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel.

It was paid for by the local Church of Reconciliation as part of the “Be On Our Side” national campaign, which argues foreign aid to Israel is perpetuating the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

The council did not make a decision at the forum, but many residents voiced their opposition to the ad and others like it.

West End Wine Bar owner Jared Resnick spoke at the public forum on behalf of several businesses on Franklin Street.

“Collectively, we share a strong belief that these ads are negative, detrimental and just overall bad for our community,” he said.

But some residents fear putting restrictions on ads would stifle free speech.

Janie Freeman, from the Salaam-Shalom committee at the Church of Reconciliation, said the purpose of placing the ad was to bring about discussion on the issue.

“Public debate is critical to a democratic society, and public debate can take place on buses,” she said. “It has been pointed out that the First Amendment would not be needed if it only protected speech that is agreeable to all.”

Chris Brook, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, agreed that the town should not restrict speech on bus ads.

“There’s a lot of danger in attempting to bar ads because people find them offensive,” he said.

But forum attendee Bill Carr said discourse should happen in places such as the Town Hall.

“This is a wonderful forum for public discussion,” he said. “Buses and subways are not.”

Moving forward, the council will consider a number of options that were proposed at the meeting.

The council could ban political advertising, as suggested in the petition.

“We don’t want people to feel like they are being bullied and then hide behind freedom of speech,” said councilwoman Penny Rich.

The council could also decide to keep the town’s current policy, which many think is working well.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want to live in a community where, when faced with controversy, we shut down the dialogue,” councilman Lee Storrow said.

Another option would be to end bus advertising altogether.

“What has been made clear this evening is that there is not a political or religious ad that would not be found offensive by someone,” councilwoman Donna Bell said.

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