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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