Published: Dec 07, 2012 07:12 PM
Modified: Dec 07, 2012 07:14 PM
CHAPEL HILL - The Town Council voted 5-2 Monday to continue a wrongly implemented bus advertising policy that allows most religious and political views.
The council also voted unanimously to limit the number of ads that can run inside buses and add visible disclaimers on each bus that the town does not support opinions expressed in the ads.
Transit staff and Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos will review new ads and decide whether they meet the town’s standards.
“The truth is, in evaluating the concept of reasonableness, it’s not really that hard,” Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said. “It’s a common exercise, and it’s one that (the courts are) able to engage in without lots of handwringing and concerns about lack of clarity.”
The approved policy, which town staff erroneously used for 16 months, sparked a controversy in August when a Church of the Reconciliation ad called for an end to U.S. aid to Israel.
Council members Matt Czajkowski and Laurin Easthom voted against continuing the policy. Council member Gene Pease was absent.
The vote lifts a temporary freeze on new ads instituted Oct. 24.
Easthom asked how staff would decide whether an ad is offensive or disrespectful, and how the town would remain neutral toward ads potentially disrespectful to a group of people.
“Tell me how you can do that and not stake out an opinion,” she said.
Karpinos said each ad would be judged by how it is worded.
Czajkowski also wondered how staff would decide which ads to allow. While he would like to vote for the standing policy, “having to apply those judgments is dicey business,” he said.
It “opens us up to constant second-guessing and potential lawsuits,” he said.
Czajkowski asked the council to also vote on making the town buses a public forum that only restricts false, deceptive, misleading or disrespectful ads. The council didn’t get the required five votes to pass that option.
Chapel Hill Transit partners Carrboro and UNC recently endorsed keeping buses as a limited public forum, “knowing full well that we may have to revisit this in the future based on how the decision-making works,” Council member Jim Ward said.
Of 12 people who spoke Monday, most expressed support for a public forum with few limits.
Resident Bisharah Libbus said a limited public forum appears to be the idea of a person with only a business point of view and no awareness that citizens could benefit from public spaces.
“The central quest is open and vigorous debate, and we should not do anything to take away from that. We should nurture that and support it,” he said.
Mike Ross, chairman of Voice 4 Israel, asked the council to reaffirm the policy approved in 2011. He also asked the council to back a petition upholding U.S. obligations to Israel and expressing support for the country’s longtime partner.
Council members accepted the petition but said they would not back a specific foreign policy.