In a fairly crowded business meeting tonight, the Chapel Hill Town Council member heard from more than 30 members of the public on Chapel Hill Transit's current bus advertising policy. Contraversy around the ad was sparked by the placement of an ad by the Church of the Reconciliation urging the end of U.S. military aid to Israel. Speakers included several members of the Church of the Reconciliation, the director of the N.C. ACLU and local Jewish leaders among others.
The central question on the issue was whether the transit system consitituted a "public forum." This is important because under Supreme Court precedent regulations on speech in public forums are subject to greater scrutiny than regulations on speech in non-public forums.
Arguments against the policy generally centered around the content of the particular ad in question, though many who advocated for a change in the policy also argued that the Chapel Hill Transit system was not a public forum. Still others argued that the particular ad under discussion here violates a specific provisions of the policy as it is currently written. Arguments for the policy came in many forms, but generally adhered to the theme that free speech, espeically political speech, is the hallmark of democracy and must be proetected. Several people pointed out that free speech is what prevents atrocties like the Holocaust in the first place, and that blocking political speech would give corporations more power than they already have in the era of Citizens United.
Ultimately, the majority of the Council semed to express strong support for free speech on buses. Council Member Lee Storrow perhaps said it best, quoting an article and saying that if a hateful advertisment is the price of free speech, then that price is not too high. Ultimaitely no decision was made, except that the staff directed the town attorney to explore whether changes needed to be made to the policy to do a better job of protecting free speech and prevent issues like this from popping up again in the future.
After closing their discussion on the ad policy, the Council moved to the voter-owned elections program. Though most members, with the excpetion of Council Member Czajkowski, support the program, the General Assembly failed to reauthorize the enabling legislation that would make the program possible. That left the Council with three options: take no action and leave the ordinance as is, repeal the ordinance or pass an ordinance stating that program will go back into effect once the General Assembly gives the town permission again. Ultimately the Council took no action except to add the program to its legislative agenda for the new state legislature in January.
For a more comprehensive recap of the meeting, check out my live tweets, embedded below.