Chapel Hill Transit Could See Even More Controversial Ad WCHL News Reporting
CHAPEL HILL - An ad that’s created controversy across the country may be headed to Chapel Hill buses.
Following on the heels of the Church of Reconciliation’s ad opposing military aid to Israel, the New York-based organization American Freedom Defense Initiative has submitted a pro-Israeli ad to Chapel Hill Transit that’s already been widely discussed, protested, and even banned in numerous cities.
The ad reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Executive director Pamela Geller says she originally submitted the ad to Chapel Hill about a month ago, in response to what she calls the anti-Israeli ad currently running on the buses.
The “Savage” ad has stirred controversy nearly everywhere Geller has placed it—including San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and New York City, where she won a lawsuit earlier this year allowing her ads to go up in the subway system.
The ad has been widely characterized as inflammatory and anti-Muslim, but Geller takes a different view.
"What's inflammatory about my ads?" she told WCHL. "I mean, was 9/11 inflammatory? Was 7/7 in London inflammatory?...I don't understand what's inflammatory...
"Nowhere in the ad is the word 'Muslim' used, or 'Islam.' The idea that it's anti-Muslim, I think, is very Islamophobic, because it implies that all Muslims support jihad--and I don't believe that, I believe that many Muslims have escaped jihad and come to the West."
So far, Geller says she hasn’t heard anything back from Chapel Hill Transit—and she says if that continues, she plans to sue the town of Chapel Hill as well.
"It's not just me that I'm suing for--I'm suing for every American's First Amendment right," she says.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says that’s not surprising, given Geller’s history of suing municipalities—like New York—that put up barriers to her ad.
The original ad that ignited the controversy in Chapel Hill deals with U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. Submitted by the Church of Reconciliation, it reads, “Join with us…build peace with justice and equality…end U.S. military aid to Israel.”
The ad came down shortly after it went up—but Chapel Hill officials said that was because it didn’t include required contact information, not because of its content. Still, emotions ran high at a public forum earlier this month, as people from many faiths and backgrounds debated whether the ad should be allowed to run on the buses.
At issue is the question of how closely the town can regulate the content of Chapel Hill Transit ads. Government can regulate speech up to a point, but the courts have severely limited government’s authority to regulate speech, even ‘hate speech,’ especially when it takes place in a public forum.
That in turn begs the question: are Chapel Hill Transit buses a ‘public forum’? The buses only began running ads last year, so there’s no prior history of litigation on the matter—and given the lack of precedent, Mayor Kleinschmidt says there’s no way of knowing for sure until the courts weigh in.
"Whether or not it is a true designated public forum...is still an open question," he says. "I don't actually think we can know the answer to that with absolute confidence unless it's litigated--which is why I'm hopeful that the Council is going to be very thoughtful in deciding how to proceed."
Kleinschmidt says that makes Chapel Hill different from New York—where it had already been established that the subway system was a public forum.
"We don't have that kind of (legal) history here, on which (Geller) could rely," he says.
But regardless of how the controversy may turn out, Kleinschmidt says it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between supporting the content of an ad and supporting the right for people to post it.
"I have very personal issues with the content of the ("Savage") ad," he says, "but it's really separate and apart from what we need to do in this context."
The Town of Chapel Hill began allowing ads to run on Chapel Hill Transit buses last year, in an attempt to raise revenue without having to raise taxes.