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Chapel Hill church raises hackles over ad on public buses; free speech an issue

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Acontroversial bus ad in Chapel Hill that calls for an end to U.S. military support in Israel is back on the streets.

Town officials yanked the advertisement bought by a Chapel Hill Presbyterian church on Aug. 23, 10 days after the spot was posted inside each of the town's 98 buses. Town staff cited a requirement that political or religious spots include contact information for the ad-buyer, but only after an outpouring of anger from Jewish leaders and community members did officials take a second look at the issue.

A revised ad, which now includes the information for the Church of Reconciliation but is otherwise identical, was scheduled to return to the buses Saturday.

The advertisement features a photo of a Palestinian man and an Israeli man, both holding a child, with the text: "Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel."

The Chapel Hill church paid for the ads, but they are actually the work of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a controversial national lobbying organization behind similar campaigns in such cities as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Portland.

The church paid less than $1,000 for the yearlong ad, according to pastor Mark Davidson. He says the message was intended to generate dialogue, not controversy. But he's nonetheless pleased with its reception.

"It's been successful beyond our wildest dreams in terms of generating attention for the issues," Davidson said.

(The politically active church made news in April, when a longtime church leader was ordained as one of the first openly gay Presbyterian ministers in the U.S. National church leaders voted last year to allow openly gay members to be ordained.)

Davidson said a group within the church's congregation pushed for the ads. The group, named Salaam-Shalom after the Arabic and Hebrew words for "peace," argues on the church website that U.S. military aid for Israel is a "barrier to peace in the Middle East."

Davidson said the taxpayer-funded aid for Israel—which amounts to $3.1 billion in military support annually and $115 billion in total assistance since World War II, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report—makes the topic more than a Jewish issue.

American support has helped Israel build a powerful military presence in the Middle East, and many national leaders see the democratic country as key to development in the tumultuous region.

"It's an American issue," Davidson said. "American taxpayer money is going to support the occupation, and a great many of us are concerned about the suffering of the Palestinian people that's been going on for more than 40 years. We're complicit in that."

Davidson added that his church wanted to break what seems an "enforced code of silence" around the subject.

"People have an immediate reaction that anything critical of Israel must mean a hatred of Israel and a hatred of Jews," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

The campaign has nonetheless generated criticism from Triangle Jewish leaders, including Chapel Hill Town Councilwoman Penny Rich, the governing panel's only Jewish member.

Rich describes the advertising as a "manipulative way to essentially call for the destruction of Israel."

"If you take funding from Israel, Israel goes away," Rich said, adding she's received dozens of emails and phone calls on the campaign.

Posting the ads was a mistake because they did not comply with Chapel Hill's identification policy, Rich said, an error she attributes to the town's relatively new acceptance of political spots. Chapel Hill authorized the acceptance of political, religious and other issues-oriented advertising in 2011 in order to raise transit funds.

Steven Schauder, executive director for the Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish Federation, said similar advertising in cities like New York and Chicago has spurred follow-up reports of hate speech.

"I don't think slogans promote peace," Schauder said. "I think there's really more constructive ways to promote mutual understanding."

Nationwide, many publicly owned transit systems allow political ads, although Chapel Hill is unique in the Triangle. Political spots are banned on city-owned transit in Raleigh. The city of Durham is formulating a policy that seems likely to do the same. Meanwhile, Triangle Transit—which operates a regional system across Wake, Durham and Orange counties—excludes all advertising.

Rich said she expects activists will petition the Chapel Hill Town Council for a policy change when members break their summer hiatus on Sept. 12. Rich said she would support a revision that bars political or controversial ad campaigns.

"Where do you draw the line on what you allow to be put on the buses?" Rich said. "What if the [Ku Klux Klan] says they want to put a very emotional, racially charged statement on the buses? Do we allow that? What if a pro-life group wants to put a picture of a fetus on the bus? Do we allow that?"

However, Frayda Bluestein, a local government expert with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, said the controversy does raise First Amendment concerns if town policies allow for the advertising. Bluestein said U.S. courts have already fielded suits over similar conflicts.

"There are issues about pulling something if it's just merely offensive," Bluestein said. "Once you open a forum up, you have to be careful not to engage in viewpoint discrimination."

Still, Rich said, town leaders must be cautious about what is allowed on public transit.

"I think being naive about a point of view is dangerous," she said. "If your goal is to have a discussion about Israel, that's one thing. But if your goal is to promote emotionally charged political viewpoints, I'm not sure that this is exactly the right venue for it."

But Davidson said Chapel Hill will make a mistake if leaders ax political speech on town buses.

"I think it would be a very sad day for Chapel Hill, especially with its progressive reputation," he said. "How exactly can you be a human rights city and curtail free speech? I think it would be a very sad and unimaginative outcome for the town."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Truth in advertising."

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