By Susan Dickson
CHAPEL HILL â€“Â Following the removal and subsequent replacement of a group of controversial ads on Chapel Hill Transit buses, residents both in support of and against the adsâ€™ removal packed the Chapel Hill Town Council meeting last week.
Adam Goldstein, speaking on behalf of Triangle Voice 4 Israel, petitioned the council to remove the ads, saying that they were â€œdivisive and a barrier to dialogue.â€
The ads, placed by the Church of Reconciliation, are part of the â€œJoin With Usâ€ and â€œBe on our Sideâ€ 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 CHTâ€™s policy on political and religious advertising, which requires a disclaimer stating the purchaser of the ad as well as contact information.
The initial ads did not include the churchâ€™s contact information, which was later added, and the advertisements went back up.
â€œTheyâ€™re offensive to many, the equivalent of calling for an end to the state of Israel, and they leave me as a Jew, a Chapel Hill resident and a parent with a teenage daughter feeling attacked in a place I want to feel at home,â€ Goldstein said.
Church of Reconciliation Pastor Mark Davidson said the ads were not intended to serve as a call for the end of the state of Israel, but simply the end of U.S. military aid to Israel.
â€œIt is true that some members of our community have been uncomfortable, even quite distressed with the view point expressed in the ad, and they have unfortunately unfairly accused us of advocating for the destruction of Israel,â€ he said. â€œNothing could be further from the truth.â€
â€œPart of living in a democracy is being exposed to viewpoints different from our own and learning to handle the difference gracefully and respectfully,â€ Davidson continued. â€œSuch civic virtues are sorely needed in our time.â€
Resident Fred Shectman urged the council not to accept any political or religious advertising on CHT buses, noting that the current policy keeps the buses open to advertising by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi party or homophobic groups.
â€œIf you accept political or religious ads â€¦ you implicitly place yourself in the role of gatekeeper by deciding what is appropriate and what is not,â€ he said. â€œOne manâ€™s terrorist is another manâ€™s freedom-fighter. Think carefully whether you want to put yourself in that position.â€
Mark Dorosin, a lawyer with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, noted the protection of free speech under the U.S. Constitution.
â€œEven in a limited public forum, content-based restrictions on speech are subject to the highest level of judicial review,â€ he said, adding, â€œI would caution you against the idea of drawing between commercial speech and other kinds of speech.â€
In accordance with its policy, the council voted to receive and refer the petition for staff review and consideration by the council at a later date.