Chapel Hill Herald editorial: Bus advertisement controversy may not be over

Dec. 15, 2012 @ 07:01 PM

This is a dilemma that is not unique to Chapel Hill, but it has led to a series of debates about the nature of free speech. It is a controversy over advertisements on public transit in the town.

The controversy began last summer when the Church of Reconciliation bought ad space on buses that called for an end to military aid to Israel. Those advertisements led to a proposal by the American Freedom Defense Initiative to place ads on the exterior of Chapel Hill buses that label Muslim jihadists as “savages.”

Public officials say that they are likely to not accept those ads, because they are disparaging and “portray individuals as inferior, evil or contemptible because of their race, color, (or creed),” according to a policy on bus advertising recently approved by the Chapel Hill Town Council.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative has successfully sued to have its ads placed on public transit in Washington, D.C., and New York, so this controversy may be far from over.

Chapel Hill’s policy also calls for a disclaimer that states that any advertisement is not endorsed by the town, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the town or its officials, which makes sense.

News organizations are in a unique position to comment on First Amendment issues, because journalists deal with those issues every single day. Freedom of speech might be clear-cut in theory, but in practice, its application can quickly become a matter of dispute.

As a public entity, the town of Chapel Hill is walking a fine line when potentially infringing upon free speech in the case of these public-transit ads.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative ad describes “War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage,” referring to Muslims. If the ad is submitted to the town, it will be reviewed, with the assistance of legal counsel.

After fits and starts, the town appears to have developed a sensible bus advertisement policy. Whether it will pass any upcoming legal challenges remains to be seen.