NC ACLU Takes on Chapel Hill Bus Ad Controversy

Molly De Marco's picture

About a year ago, the Town of Chapel Hill amended its bus advertisement policy to spell out rules for ads with political messages. In August, the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill placed an ad that shows a Jewish and a Palestinian grandfather each with a grandchild and reads “Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.” The ad stirred up a controversy and led to a petition from citizens to change the bus ad policy to disallow such ads. The current policy is available online at http://www.townofchapelhill.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=15328.

On Friday, the ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter to the Chapel Hill town manager and elected officials outlining why changing the bus ad policy would violate the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Below is the ACLU-NC press release. The full letter is available here.

The town has scheduled a public forum on the bus ads for Thursday, October 11, at 7:00 pm during the Chapel Hill Town Council's regular business meeting.

 

ACLU-NC to Chapel Hill: Censoring Bus Ads Violates First Amendment


In Letter, Constitutional Law Group Warns Chapel Hill Town Officials that Removing a Bus Ad Because of Its Political Message Would Constitute Content & Viewpoint Discrimination

 

RALEIGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) sent a letter to officials from the Town of Chapel Hill on Friday, urging them to “safeguard cherished First Amendment rights and its reputation as a community welcoming of dialogue” by allowing a recent controversial advertisement to remain on city buses.

The letter was sent after the ACLU-NCLF received numerous complaints from Chapel Hill residents concerned by a proposal from some town officials to remove a public bus advertisement paid for by the Church of Reconciliation and featuring a Palestinian and an Israeli man holding their grandchildren with text reading, “Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.”

In its letter, the ACLU-NCLF explains that removing the ad solely because of disagreement with its content, as some officials have proposed, would constitute  subject matter and viewpoint discrimination in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The freedom of citizens to express political beliefs without being censored by their government is one of the most basic and cherished rights protected by our Constitution,” said ACLU-NCLF Legal Director Chris Brook, who authored the letter. “In fact, speech that is unpopular, controversial, or incites strong emotions is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect. We urge Chapel Hill officials to stand up for the free speech rights of their citizens by keeping the town’s bus ads open as a forum for public dialogue free of government censorship.” 

Read the entire letter at acluofnc.org.

The ACLU of North Carolina is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the guarantees of individual liberty found in the United States and North Carolina Constitutions and related federal and state civil rights laws. With more than 12,000 members and supporters throughout the state and an office located in Raleigh, the organization achieves its mission through advocacy, public education, community outreach, and when necessary, litigation.

 

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36 Comments

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Thank you, ACLU-NC!

I'm so glad to see the ACLU weighing in on this. I completely agree that this is an issue of free speech and that limting these ads, or any deemed "political" as some have been requesting, is a completely inappropriate infringement on free expression.Going to make sure my ACLU membership isup to date now... 

Dan Coleman's picture

I agree with Ruby

We live in an era where the public realm for free speech in shrinking dramatically. Chapel Hill and Carrboro ought to expand, not further restrict, such opportunities. Peace and Justice Plaza is no more sufficient than the "free speech zones" to which activists are cordoned at the national conventions.In addition, I find it troubling to read in the N&O that it has been said that "the ads are offensive to Jews" [of course it should say some Jews]. My own feeling is that Jews should be particularly aware from their history that censorship is one of the first tools of fascism, a tool that Jews (and the rest of us) should always resist and never propose.

penny rich's picture

Question from a reporter

Can the KKK pay for an ad on the side of the bus with a noose - then the n-word running down the side of the bus and a couple of hoods after the n-word? Political free speech right? Do you want to live in a town where all the buses are wrapped the n-word?  This is not a Jewish issue. The press has played it out that way because it gives them a story. IT just happens that it is an anti Israel ad that hit the fan first.  I have been against political ads from the start. I agree with Raleigh's policy. Standards of Advertising
The Raleigh Transit Authority has sole and unquestioned authority to determine what constitutes appropriate
advertisements. The following standards for advertising have been adopted and such advertising may not be displayed:
1. Is false, misleading or deceptive;
2. Relates to an illegal activity;
3. Advertises alcohol or tobacco products;
4. Supports or opposes a candidate, issue or cause, or which advocates or opposes a religion, denomination,
religious creed, tenet or belief;
5. May be construed to reflect endorsement by Capital Area Transit, the Raleigh Transit Authority, or the City of
Raleigh of a particular product, service, idea, etc. 

Seriously?

Penny, you should go read the current CH bus advertising policy (see link above). Obviously, the type of advertisement you propose would not be allowed. No one is proposing that there should not be any restrictions on content, just that the current policy is adequate.

You did a good job

I figured you were familiar with the policy. My point was that the policy is a good one and would easily reject the ad you described. Virtually no one interprets free speech as including all speech. But rules should be viewpoint neutral -- which the policy that you helped write is. You are only now suggesting that the policy needs to be changed because there was an ad you strongly disagree with -- not content neutral.

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Policy advocacy is not hate speech

Penny, it's being called a "Jewish issue" because you and many others vocally opposed it on exactly those grounds.To compare the statement "End U.S. military aid to Israel" to hate speech seems kind of absurd to me.  No matter how you feel about the politics, it doesn't advocate violence or harming anyone. In fact I personally think it promotes the opposite of that, but my personal opinions of the content should be as irrelevant as yours in this discussion. If we apply a reasonable community standard to this ad, it's hard to find anything wrong with it. Here's a copy of how it looked before the address was added:And here's more about the actual people and story behind it: http://www.twopeoplesonefuture.org/chapelhill/  

Equal

If it's equality we are after then why doesn't the ad say Stop US Military aid to Israel and Palastine? Bilateral agreement in the 1990s states that the US must support each and they do. So why just ask to stop the aid to Israel? It is my opinion and many many other Jewish people in the Triangle that if Israel's support ends- so does Israel. 

 

This ad is sponsored by a lobbyist group out of D.C.  The head of the group has never been in Chapel Hill and has no clue about our town. I ask the Chruch of Reconcilation if they knew that before they agreed to partner with them?  Because after speaking to Josh I realized that this is not a peaceful or equal conversation. 

Penny 

 

Good points

Penny, I think you have some good points to make. I think the position taken by the ad is naive. This is a good conversation to have. But the conversation about aid to Israel/Palestine is proof that the ads are not inappropriate. Hate speech precludes conversation by threats or by denying one side is worthy of inclusion in a debate. The ads don't do that. Just because you (and I) disagree with the ad doesn't mean that it should be banned.

Barbara Crockett's picture

Protect Free Speech

I hope the town council will choose to keep the advertising guidelines as they are currently written. This is a great ad. Imagine if another ad appeared with a photo of two men and a child and two women and a child that read, "Support peaceful families. Support marriage equality." Would CH have a problem with that? No. Would opinions be passionate on both sides of the issue? Yes. Should that kind of ad be allowed? Of course. 

gercohen's picture

Raleigh policy

I know Raleigh's policy well as I've served for many years on the Raleigh Transit Authority. I've advocated a change to allow political and issue ads but no other members are as far as I know. I hope Chapel Hill keeps its policy and allows those kinds if ads. I know Chapel Hill allowed political ads "back in the day" as I paid to have campaign posters placed

Bus ads

If ads advoating a religion or supporting a cause are banned, there won't be any left except the apartment ads. Approximately 6 out of 10 ads inside the buses today (deteremined by the ones I've riden lately and made counts on) are either from churches or family planning/family violence agencies. If you include mental health services, which could be interpreted as supporting a cause, the count goes up to 7 out of 10. And if you count events that support a cause, the count goes up even higher at certain times of the year.It would be interesting to get Chapel Hill Transit to provide an analysis of the ads they have placed over the past couple of years. My preference is free speech. Penny's example is the most extreme and offensive possible abuse--one that I can't imagine happening here. But if it did, it would generate a lot of discussion and we'd probably all learn something; same as we have from the ad asking for peace in the middle East.

Bonnie Hauser's picture

The ads are misleading and deceptive

Its almost comical to see educated people suggest that US military aid to Israel is about Palestine. lets not forget that Israel sits in the middle of hte Arab world, and that the US gives military aid to many Arab nations. Hamas and Hezbullah give military aid to Palestine.   the ad is connected to a pro-palestinian group called the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation.  In the sprit of free speech, it seems transparency is in order and there should be full disclosure of the organizations behind the ads.  The Campaign is enjoying showcasing the Chapel Hill debate on their webiste where they claim ownership of the ad   http://www.endtheoccupation.org/ If that's not enough - in NYC, the MTA just pulled pro-Israel ads.   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/nyregion/mta-amends-rules-after-pro-israel-ads-draw-controversy.html  so maybe this is not a simple, free speech discussion. Its a complex and convoluted issues which will certainly not be resolved with an anti-israeli ad on a bus. On a bus, the ads do little more than  stir anti-semitic, and uninformed beliefs that suggest Israel is a bully.   Nothing could be further from the truth. Bonnie Hauser

Damon Seils's picture

Re: "misleading"

It was only a matter of time until someone resorted to a charge of anti-Semitism. There couldn't be anything more misleading in this thread than to steer the discussion in that direction. The discussion isn't about Israel. It's about protecting the right of political expression -- especially controversial political expression -- from government interference. The New York MTA action you cite was struck down once in federal court and is likely to undergo additional review, as Mark Dorosin explains in his column today in the Carrboro Citizen:http://www.carrborocitizen.com/main/2012/10/04/constitutional-issues-imp...It would be helpful if people who don't support the First Amendment would just admit that they don't support the First Amendment.  

Bonnie Hauser's picture

The ad is misleading

the disucssion is also about Chapel Hill Bus Ad policy - and not permitting deceptive or misleading advertising.  The ad on the bus is both.  It fails to acknowledge its souce (the campaign to end Israeli Occupation -  not Twopeoplesonefuture.org)    Plus is not about peace for two nations - its about Palestine.  But you'd have to visit the websites to see for yourself If the ad was honest and transparent - rather than desceptive and misleading -- then the free speech discussion would be interesting.    Bonnie Hauser

Mark Chilton's picture

Gerry, I believe all four

Gerry, I believe all four (Pepsi, Wendy's, Taco Bell and KFC) have interlocking directorates, but that's hardly the point. Is an ad deceptive just because it fails to point out all the corporate structure behind it?

Roscoe's picture

1st and Ten, let's Do It Again

It is irrelevant whether the church's statement is deceptive or misleading (a charge you could make against any public statement anywhere). The church's ad makes a statement and they stand behind it. Whether one agrees with it or not is for discussion. It is irrelevant who"s "behind it". The statement is not hate or violent speech. It's free speech, a value we assume of this community's citizens. If you feel strongly something should be said against the statement on the bus (why it's wrong and who's behind it), buy and place your own ad. We taxpayers will celebrate

Bonnie Hauser's picture

I don't think so. Pepsi puts

I don't think so. Pepsi puts its own label on soft drinks - and will sue Wendy's if they call a Pepsi anything but a Pepsi.     A better analogy is when the ACLU protected the rights of the neo-nazi's to march on Skokie.   There was no question about the identity of the organizations involvedIf the ads were "co-labeled" with "the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation", I still woulden't like it -but at least the people reading the ads would know who's doing the talking. Bonnie Hauser

Mark Chilton's picture

Who's afraid of the KKK?

The point is really this: The KKK would do us all a favor by advertising their true beliefs. Sure, most of us would be highly offended by their point of view, but would that really be such a bad thing?  Is there anything wrong with confronting their racism/homophobia/anti-semitism/anti-catholicism etc. etc? No.In fact, confronting the reality of their viewpoint is good for us all.  It helps remind us why they are so completely wrong in their viewpoint.  Why should we be afraid to face that reality?The Israeli-Palestinian issue is fraught with a much more complex history.  Does that mean we should be afraid to discuss it?  Does that make one viewpoint bad and another good? Personally, I don't think so. 

Bonnie Hauser's picture

of course we should discuss it

What a progessive community we would be if we had open and frank discussions about the middle east, and prejudices in all forms, including anti-muslim and other emerging targets. Its hard to see how we get there with an ad on a bus that trivializes and, in my opinion, misleads, about a complex issue- that few of of us understan.Rather than discuss the issue, we'd prefer to fight over the right to run the ad. In my view, there's no winners here, and its a huge distraction.  Bonnie Hauser

gercohen's picture

Distraction caused by who?

Once the ad was revised with the sponsor name, the distraction was caused by those who want to shut off one side of the debate because of some reason or other that flies in the face if the First Amendment. Why are people afraid of the ad. I am strongly pro-Israel but the ad does not bother me in the slightest 

national perspective on same issue

According to the Herald-Sun, Chapel Hill Transit has also been contacted by the American Freed Defense Initiative about an ad that has raised all these same issues in New York and San Francisco. Here's the analysis by the Atlantic: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/10/yes-ad-offensive-free-speech-rides-public-transit-too/3508/ "There will always be some ad that offends somebody somewhere, so we can’t just start banning ads left and right because somebody is going to be offended," Kaplar says. "That’s just the price we pay for having a First Amendment that protects all kinds of speech." The Herald-Sun article can be found at:  http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/20381393/article-Controversial-group-has-inquired-about-bus-ad?