In Chapel Hill, the buses aren’t free. They are government subsidized. Now speech on those buses isn’t free. It is government regulated.
Recently the Town Council had to decide what kind of ads to allow on Chapel Hill Transit buses. It decided against making the public buses a public forum, which would have allowed people or organizations fairly unfettered free speech. Instead, it decided to ban any ads the town staff and attorney think might offend someone.
This is the second time the Town Council has tried to set bus ad policy. The first time it restricted ads to businesses, disallowing political or religious statements altogether. But no one told town staff that, and for the last two years they’ve been operating on an anything goes policy.
No one noticed until a local church created an uproar with a preposterous call for the United States to cut off military support for Israel. Complaints flooded in asking for the ad to be removed. Free speech advocates countered that people should be allowed to express their opinions. That forced Town Council to referee.
One would think this would be a fairly easy decision for a town with such a progressive heritage. It wasn’t too long ago that Chapel Hill dedicated its Peace and Justice Plaza in front of the old post office on Franklin Street, which “honors the energy and spirit of the thousands who have stood in the shadow of the Courthouse and exercised their rights to assembly and speech.”
Instead, much debate ensued. Citizens, religious and rights groups, including the ACLU, weighed in. The Town of Carrboro, which helps pay for transit, quickly passed a remarkable resolution unequivocally supporting extending First Amendment rights to the buses.
Then the University, also a transit funder, got involved and things became complicated. At a meeting of the Transit Partners (UNC, Chapel Hill and Carrboro) the university representative expressed concern that faculty, staff and students who must take buses to campus shouldn’t be subjected to ads they might find offensive.
To find “consensus,” according to Chapel Hill representatives, a “compromise” was agreed: allow a broad array of opinions as long as they don’t offend riders. The goal is “to have some degree of control.” That is the policy the Town Council adopted.
One would think a university would be the leading advocate for free speech, especially UNC. After all, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the State Legislature imposing a Speaker’s Ban on campus, which sparked a memorable student protest on Franklin Street. Their lawsuit eventually overturned that law as unconstitutional.
But this University, like many others in this day and age, now values political correctness over free speech. It has imposed restrictive student Speech Codes and Community Living Standards designed to silence speech the University deems offensive. Those rules are themselves under fire for violating First Amendment rights. Evidently, gone are the days when we would teach our kids that sticks and stones can break their bones, but names could never hurt them.
There are nations in the world today where insulting a government or religion puts the speaker’s life at risk. Fortunately we live in a country that protects our speech, even when it is offensive or disrespectful. Except on a Chapel Hill bus.
Given this new policy, perhaps all the west bound Franklin Street buses should dim their lights when passing the Peace and Justice Plaza and all east bound buses do the same when passing the Speaker’s Ban marker on the McCorkle Place wall. That’s the least we can do to respect those students and citizens honored there for their use of free speech.
Mark Zimmerman owns a small business in Chapel Hill. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and @markrzim on Twitter.