CHAPEL HILL – The Town Council Monday approved a bus advertising policy that allows religious, political and social issue ads with some restrictions.
The policy, known as Option 5, is virtually the same as the draft policy transit officials erroneously used to make decisions in administering the town’s transit advertising program until officials discovered the error.
Under the policy, transit buses will be viewed as a limited public forum rather than a designated public forum, under which the transit officials would have accepted most ads.
Ads that are determined by transit officials to be false, misleading, deceptive or disrespectful are banned.
Option 5 was approved 5-2 with council members Donna Bell, Ed Harrison, Lee Storrow, Jim Ward and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt voting in favor.
Before that vote, Matt Czjakowski, Laurin Easthom, Storrow and Kleinschmidt voted in favor of Option 2, which would have declared transit buses a public forum and allowed most ads.
However, the vote failed because five votes were needed for approval.
Bell, Harrison and Ward voted against Option 2.
In voting against Option 5, Easthom said she was concerned that it was too subjective, leaving transit officials to decide what ads are appropriate.
“To me, where opening up a lot of subjectivity,” Easthom said. “I don’t feel like we’re protected. For me, Option 2 has enough inherent protection for the things we don’t want.”
Council member Gene Pease was absent due to illness and former councilwoman Penny Rich has resigned from the council to take a seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
After transit officials discovered in October that they were using the wrong policy, the council suspended its bus advertising policy, deciding not to accept any new ads for its buses.
The correct policy would have prohibited religious, political and social issue ads on town buses.
Last week, the Chapel Hill transit partners threw their support behind the draft policy approved by the council on Monday.
The partners is made up of representatives from the Town of Chapel Hill, UNC and Carrboro, the three local organizations that help pay for the town’s fare-free bus system.
Option five, which allows religious, political and social issue ads but restricts ads that are false, misleading, deceptive or disrespectful, appealed to the partners worried about strangling free speech in a town known for open and robust debate.
Earlier this month, the council tabled a decision on its transit advertising policy, in part, to allow its partners, Carrboro and UNC, to weigh in.
The decision to delay the matter came after the six present members split over a motion to reaffirm the correct bus advertising policy that restricts political, religious and social issue advertising on Chapel Hill Transit buses.
The bus advertising policy has been a source of contention since the Church of Reconciliation bought and placed an ad on buses over the summer urging the U.S. to end military aid to Israel.
The decision to suspend the bus advertising policy put on hold another controversial ad, this one proposed by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) which submitted a proposal to place five of the pro-Israel group’s ad on the exterior of town buses for up to six months.
The AFDI ad stating “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man, Support Israel. Defeat Jihad” has caused controversy across the country.
Pam Geller, executive director of the AFDI, successfully sued to have the ad run by city transit operations in Washington , D.C. , and New York .
Geller has hinted that she would sue the town if it does not allow AFDI to place its ad on town buses.
Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos has said the Geller ad would likely be rejected under Option 5, which restricts ads that are disparaging, disreputable to persons groups, businesses or organizations or “portray individuals as inferior, evil or contemptible because of their race, color, creed” or other characteristics identified in the proposed policy.
Several people spoke for and against particular options, including Chris Brooks, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, who urged the council to declare the town’s bus advertising space a public forum, open to all advertising.
Brooks said the policy adopted by the council barring ads deemed “offensive” is a subjective standard that could “easily lead to viewpoint discrimination.”
He said the town should follow the example set by Madison, Wis., which took the decision-making about ads out of the hands of the hands of transit officials by declaring its bus advertising space a public forum.
“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,” Brooks said.