Maturely handling challenging speech

Aug. 03, 2013 @ 10:13 AM

The Town of Chapel Hill’s approach toward controversial bus advertising moved forward with seeming calm last week, as a new ad was headed for public display this month and next.

Town and Chapel Hill Transit officials gave a nod to the proposed ad, paid for by two groups called “Imagine Peace” and VoiceForIsrael. The bus company and the groups were expected to quickly sign a contract, perhaps by the end of last week.

The agreement comes some eight months after the Town Council hammered out a policy on transit advertising.  The bus debate roiled last summer and autumn after the Church of Reconciliation bought and placed an ad on buses urging the U.S. to end military aid to Israel.

The debate had its almost-comic aspects, as the town realized staff had been approving ads under a draft policy, never enacted, more broadly permissive than the real policy, which would, for example, probably have banned the Church of Reconciliation ad.

Faced with a potential request for an aggressively pro-Israeli ad many interpreted as offensive to Palestinians, the town hammered out a compromise short of the robust openness one might expect in a town that once defied a state “speaker ban law” but more liberal than the old – accidentally ignored – policy.

So now, quietly, transit administrators have green-lighted the new pro-Israel ad milder than the one anticipated last year. The ad set to go on buses shortly states: “Imagine Peace in a Middle East where Israel and her neighbors share technology and resources to create a future of peace and prosperity for generations to come. The possibilities are endless.”

Hard to see how anyone could find that offensive.

Then again, we’re not sure we saw unnecessary offense in the Church of Reconciliation ad that started the whole kerfuffle: “Build Peace with justice and equality. End U. S. military aid to Israel.”

But sensitivities are high on controversial issues, and we understand why the council wrestled with the boundary between spirited debate and assertions that might seem not just forceful but hateful.

Still, the new bus ads underscore what we generally feel about unfettered expression. The antidote for speech with which we disagree is more speech, not less.

Chris Brooks, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, stated the case for openness at a forum during last fall’s council consideration of the new ordinance.

Brooks said barring ads deemed “offensive” is a subjective standard that could “easily lead to viewpoint discrimination.”
Citing a permissive law in another college town – Madison, Wis. – Brooks argued at the time:

“The responsible decision is to embrace the Madison model by declaring Chapel Hill transit a public forum, providing North Carolina communities a template for trusting their residents to maturely handle even challenging speech.”

He didn’t prevail, but at least the council abandoned its unenforced, stricter policy. We hope the new ad – and any that come along to rebut its sentiments – do indeed prove Chapel Hill’s populace can, as Brooks put it, maturely handle challenging speech.