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Controversial ads back on buses

By Susan Dickson
Staff Writer

The original ad, paid for by the Church of Reconciliation, was taken off Chapel Hill Transit buses. The church added its contact information, and the ads are back up. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE CHURCH OF RECONCILIATION

A little more than a week after their removal, a group of controversial ads is back up on Chapel Hill Transit buses.

The ads, placed by the Church of Reconciliation, were part of the “Join With Us” and “Be on our Side” national ad campaign coordinated by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, calling for the end of U.S. military aid to Israel. Five complaints led to a review of the ads, which found that they were not in compliance with CHT’s policy on political and religious advertising, which requires a disclaimer stating the purchaser of the ad as well as contact information.

Additional residents have contacted the town regarding the ads since the initial review, and the controversy has launched a discussion among bus riders, other residents and Chapel Hill Town Council members.

“I was terribly disappointed to learn that a local church thought it was appropriate to buy space on our free public transit system that would alienate members of the Jewish community like me,” wrote Lew Borman, former executive director of the Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish Federation, in an email to the council. “These ads, however well meaning, are insulting. It is a sad unilateral expression.”

Though the church’s ads had been approved by CHT staff and the town attorney, they did not include the church’s contact information – only that the ads had been “paid for by the Church of Reconciliation and Friends,” said Pastor Mark Davidson. The omission was unintentional, he said, and they’ve since added the contact information and gotten the ads back up.

“We wanted to generate discussion and dialogue, and especially to draw some attention to the issue, and it certainly has done that,” Davidson said.
Davidson said the church spent about $1,400 printing the ads and less than $1,000 to run them on the 98 CHT buses for one year.

CHT director Steve Spade said the policy on bus advertising was approved by the council in June 2011 when CHT began to sell advertising on its buses.

“From time to time, somebody will call and have a complaint about something,” he said, noting that they’d received a few complaints regarding the Wells Fargo bus wrap.

As for the church’s ads, Spade said, “As far as we’re concerned, they’re in complete compliance with the policy.”

Council members have indicated that they would like to revisit the transit advertising policy in light of the controversy.

“First Amendment rights were a significant part of our discussion [about the policy], and how to balance that right with our interest in maintaining a positive/neutral ambiance on and about our buses and transit system,” council member Jim Ward wrote in an email with regard to the first complaint. “I’m not surprised by the concern expressed by one of our bus riders. While we created a very thoughtful set of protocols, sooner or later, someone was bound to voice their concern.”

Council member Penny Rich said she felt CHT should not accept offensive political ads.

“Being the only Jewish person on the council I can tell you that Israel is a very emotional, complicated issue to discuss,” Rich wrote in an email. “I publicly do not take a stand on Israel, however, I do think we as a town have to understand the strong bond Jewish people have with Israel, therefore we need to extend our respect by not accepting political ads that will offend our Jewish citizens.”

Davidson said the church has received a flurry of contact about the ads and that their next step will be to hold some discussions or forums.

“I think we have known all along that the purpose of the ads was to be a catalyst for conversation,” he said. “They’ve done that, and we want for them to continue doing that.”

“What we really care about is the issue of the occupation and the horrendous conditions that Palestinians live under,” he continued. “I just don’t want the main reason for our effort to get lost in all of these other controversies.”

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