CHTC Makes Buses a Limited Public Forum

In a 5-2 vote, the Chapel Hill Town Council tonight reaffirmed Chapel Hill Transit (CHT)’s bus advertising policy with minor adjustments. The policy, which was technically a draft that had been erroneously enforced by staff, makes town buses a “limited public form,” and prohibits advertising that is “disparaging, disreputable or disrespectful.” The main debate of the evening centered around subjective terms like “disparaging” and “disrespectful” would be interpreted by staff. Council Members Eastrom and Czajkowski were the two dissenting votes. Council Member Pease was absent.

The Council also approved resolutions limiting the number of ads with the same message from the same source that can appear on a single bus and allowing staff to place disclaimers with bus ads stating that they do not represent the views of the town government.

The Council first considered making the buses a true public forum, but failed to attain the five votes necessary to make that change. Council Members Bell and Ward and Mayor Pro Tem Harrison all dissented in that 4-3 vote. 

Also related to the bus ads issue, the Council, in a 6-1 vote, received, but did not refer to staff for further review and consideration, a petition from a member of the public to take a pro-Israel position. Council Members pointed out that the Israel issue was not the focus of the bus ad discussion and that foreign policy is not in the realm of the Council. Dissenting Council Member Lee Storrow argued that petition should receive the same treatment ordinarily afforded to others. 



for voting for Option #2 which would have declared buses a public forum that would still resctrict false, deceptive, misleading or disrespectful ads. This is a classic free speech issue. Historically, when it really matters, standing up for free speech is neither easy, comfortable, nor popular. That said, here's hoping town staff will be presented with easy implementation choices that won't involve litigation. And last but not least, kudos to the entire CH town council for finding alternative revenue sources to keep CH buses free in these challenging fiscal times.  

I'm late to this party, but I'm wondering how have other jurisdictions handled advertising issues of these sorts? I'd venture to guess that larger cities and towns, with more resources such as funds to pay attorneys and the like, may well have investigated many of the issues, legal and otherwise, that pertain. That could provide some insight here. But maybe it's been done already and someone could point out where.  


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