Accidental free speech

Jim Ward admonished Chapel Hill: No talking on the bus.

The issues to be decided by the six council members who made it to Monday night’s Town Council meeting were whether a Chapel Hill Transit bus is a public forum, and if not, what sorts of ads, if any, could be displayed. In June 2011, council approved a bus ad policy that did not allow any ads that addressed social issues, political stances or religious persuasion. But the transit staff had a copy of the wrong policy, and for the past year and a half had been accepting ads on all those topics.

At the Oct. 24 council meeting, the error came to light, and council suspended the town’s bus ad policy until council had a chance to revisit the issue.

Townspeople spoke for more than an hour Monday night, some wanting to pull all ads, others wanting to ditch only the Church of Rec ads, and many wanting to continuing using the buses as a public forum. One speaker noted that she has held forums on the topic of U.S. aid to Israel, but people who disagree with her don’t attend. The ads on the bus got everyone talking.

When it was council’s turn to weigh in, Ward jumped in that while he is a fan of free speech, it has its place, and that place is not on the bus. He asked Church of Rec to voluntarily pull the ads, and failing that, staff should remove them and the town resume its June 2011 policy of basically commercial ads only.

Laurin Easthom and Lee Storrow pushed back immediately. Easthom said the public input would allow council to make a better decision than the quickie made in June. Penny Rich claimed council had had a lengthy discussion about the ads, but no one else on council could remember it, and there was no record of it. Storrow said how a policy is enforced matters. For 18 months, transit staff had not been following the town’s policy, including not requiring contact information on the ads, until Church of Rec’s ad. Perhaps freedom of speech came to the town by accident; nevertheless, the town had a de facto policy of buses being a public forum.

Gene Pease pointed out council was not voting on who was right and who was wrong on the military aid isue but on whether buses should serve as a public forum.

Ed Harrison, filling in for the mayor, recommended that no action be taken until after the transit partners of UNC and Carrboro weighed in. Like they would take a stand against free speech. But time was, no one would have expected Chapel Hillians to lobby so passionately against free speech, either.

Ward made a motion to revert to the June 2011 policy. It failed, 3-3, falling two votes shy of the five needed to pass.

Council will take up the matter again on Dec. 3, after transit partners have lodged their comments and presumably there will be fewer empty seats on the dais.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. JWJ

     /  November 7, 2012

    Ms. Oates: Thank you for the summary of the city council discussion.

    My opinion is government bus (or a govt sanctioned monopoly), therefore a public forum, therefore no censorship by the government.

    A private advertising business (such as a blog or newspaper or billboard) can choose who they want to sell to or not.

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  November 7, 2012

    And it does get people thinking and talking in a way that an ad for, say, air duct cleaning doesn’t.

  3. Bonnie Hauser

     /  November 9, 2012

    Unlike real public forums, riders are stuck on a bus and if an ad offends or angers them, they have no place to go. Certainly a one-sided ad is not a meaningful dialog or debate. And the ad revenues don’t nearly cover the costs of the upset to the town or the community.

    It would be easier to only allow commercial ads that can be ignorned ir dismissed. Political and religious ads open the door to propaganda and subtle “hate speech”, and force the town to the role of “taste police” in order to decide whether the ad is offensive.

    There are enough public forums, Can’t we keep our politics off the bus?

  4. Nancy Oates

     /  November 9, 2012

    Change doesn’t happen unless people talk about the issue and it becomes uncomfortable enough to act. Sometimes they won’t talk about it unless they come in contact with it every day on their way to and from work.

  5. Chris Jones

     /  November 9, 2012

    “riders are stuck on a bus and if an ad offends or angers them, they have no place to go”

    While I think there are some valid concerns re. tacit endorsement by a government of a political/societal/religious/corporate position in an advertisement, I think that the above quote is absolutely foolish.

    Avert your eyes. Look out the window. Read a book or a newspaper. Take a nap. Neither the CHTC, transit dept, bus driver, purchaser of ad, or other riders are forcing anyone to look at an ad they don’t want to look at.

    Dear America, Grow up. Seriously. We’ve got WORLDS better issues to discuss than this matter, PARTICULARLY when framed as above. You want to have a policy discussion re. “standards” for bus advertisements in order to insure a consistent, even, and fair process for evaluating content, then HAVE AT IT. You don’t “like” the ad, or it “angers” you? Big Deal. Get on a different bus. Ride a bike. Walk. SERIOUSLY. Hell, engage the rider next to you in a friendly debate about the relative faults or merits of the ad. If an ad angers a rider so much that you can’t avert your eyes, and be within 20 feet of its presence for all of 10 minutes, then, honestly, the problem is NOT the town’s ad policy . . . the problem is that rider.

  6. Bonnie Hauser

     /  November 10, 2012

    Sorry if you don’t understand Chris – if the buses are a public forum – then anything goes – and all ads – including the Geller ads should run.

    BTW you are entitled to your opinion – and if you are a true free speech advocate, then please be respectful of others that disagree with you – including me.

    Lets not ignore the fact that the current ads are offiensive to some part of the community – on and off the bus — and have tied the council and the community up in a heated debate -not about military aid to israel -but about free speech – a topic that no one questions. If the council wants to run offensive ads, then they should turn the buses into public forums.

    Today – the buses are not public forums and as such the Church’s ads should be taken down. The town has no consistent policy to determine offensive content – so they are unprepared to enforce a policy.

    Seems that there are many public forums to me – including the outside of the buses. We need more discussion – not more one sided views.

  7. I think this is kind of interesting. I wonder if when Rosa Parks sat down in the front of the bus, if there weren’t people saying “can’t we keep our politics off of the bus.”

    Obviously, this is not a Rosa Parks type of situation, but buses have always been political. Part of the destruction of public transportation and the reason Georgetown in DC does not have a Metro stop is the buses allow people access to places.

    This bus ad debate is a mess. However, it is a good discussion to have, because it highlights the non-partisan nature of government services. We are in this mess, because we cannot raise enough taxes or fees to pay for buses. The very idea that we start having public stadiums brought to you by Pepsi or PNC Bank or whatever endorses a particular world view.

    So the real question is not about a free speech – which should be allowed whether we disagree or not. The real question is why do we require our State and Local governments to whore themselves out in order to fund basic services? If Orange County, the State of NC and the Federal government properly funded public transportation, we wouldn’t have to sell ads to keep something that adds to our quality of life and those hard-working folks who rely on it.

    Fund public transportation properly and get rid of the advertisements. Problem solved.

  8. Terri Buckner

     /  November 10, 2012

    Good post, Steve.

    I was very proud of Laurin Easthom and Lee Storrow for their very thoughtful contributions to Monday night’s discussion.

  9. Bonnie Hauser

     /  November 11, 2012


    I’m agree completely- but no one is fighting for quality bus service.

    What about bus fares? They wont fund the entire operation – but shouldn’t the users help fund the service. The students do – and UNC plans to charge for the park n rides.

  10. I am not arguing the details of fares or not. I have no desire to split hairs on things to prove I am “Liberal” or “Conservative.” All I will say is that we have no problem paying private contractors a lot of money for roads, bridges, etc. to handle more cars.

    Perhaps, we should have to pay tolls when we drive across town? It’s as valid as bus fares. We can ask all kinds of what-if questions, but it really comes down to priorities.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with bus fares. However, that is a bit of red herring. For 7 years I rode the DC Metro. I paid a fare, but there still was never enough money to pay for the upgrades necessary.

    To me, public transportation is as basic as building roads. While we do pay gas taxes to pay for roads, we do not pay a direct fee for using them. For people who live and work in Chapel Hill and ride a bus to be PENALIZED by paying a fare to support their way to work while those who drive continue to get off with not shelling out a $1.75 every time they have to pick up medication or go to work seems unfair.

    Again, you are endorsing a world view where car drivers (such as myself) can continue to drive our car, pay an ever diminishing Personal Property Tax to the County, while people who can’t afford a car are charged $3.50 per day for the privilege of not owning a car.

    To put this in perspective: a “nominal fee” to those of us who spend $800 plus on iPads would amount to $875 while a car owner’s portion with a 2009 Subaru is about $300.

    I don’t disagree that everyone should pay their fair (or fare) share, but let’s not assume that car owners and drivers are. They aren’t. And don’t get me started on the ridiculously low taxes on private airplanes.

    Paying for Park and Ride is paying for the privilege of using your car. If you simply took a bus, it would be cheaper. Unless you don’t live in Town. Then you are benefiting from not paying Town taxes, so you are simply paying to offset the cost of the services we are providing and don’t use. For example, I don’t ever use Park and Ride, I take the bus or pay to park downtown if a free space isn’t available.

    It really is about priorities. And just so people realize, I don’t own a bike (yet). I don’t take Public Transport in Chapel Hill except to really crowded events. I don’t benefit directly from Public Transport at all in Chapel Hill. However, I remember what it was like to be very poor living off $13,000/year and going to school. So I don’t mind supporting those in that situation today.

    Maybe I am weird, but I don’t want to live in a place where we get all bent out of shape over whether people who can’t afford a car have to pay $875 when most of the people complaining can afford $360/year on Internet service, buy iPhones, iMacs and live in expensive houses.

    I pay $6,300 per year in taxes plus a negligible amount on my two cars to Orange and Chapel Hill. I frankly could care less about the negligible cost of providing bus service that UNC picks up a large part of the bill for.

    So if we want to bring fares into it, I suggest everyone who drives in Chapel Hill calculate the number of trips you make in the car, then multiply them by $1.75. Compare that to your Car tax. Then quit whining about the fact people who can’t afford a car or who are simply acting out their convictions about the environment are getting a free ride.

    Their free ride is raising the Real Estate values and rents in the outer areas, it is keeping inexperienced drivers off the road and, in the case of a friend of mine, allowed her daughter to go to school in the program she wanted without having to shell out extra money.

    With all that most of us have, is getting that extra $875 from our Maids and students that important.

  11. Bonnie Hauser

     /  November 11, 2012

    Steve- my point was a simple one – of course transit will never be covered by fares. But since there’s a huge debate over offensive bus ads – because supposedly we need the money – and you suggested better funding. I thought a good place to start would be fares.

    UNC students pay for the buses – and just got a fare hike. And UNC is charging for the Park n RIdes that are used by their employees to get to the campus buses. So why does everyone else ride free.

    I’d love to know what the interior ad revenues are – I bet they’d be easily covered by fares.

  12. Terri Buckner

     /  November 11, 2012

    The buses aren’t set up to require funds. They would have to be retrofitted. Fare collection also slows down the routes. Selling bus passes would require additional accounting staff. It is more efficient to make the service ‘free’ and pay for it through lump sum transfers.

  13. George C

     /  November 12, 2012

    Everyone else isn’t riding free. Chapel Hill and Carrboro citizens who pay property taxes are all contributing directly to the bus system through their taxes. I believe that of the ~$18.5 million budget for 2012-2013, CH’s share is about $3 million from taxes but it also is able to contribute about another $2 million in grants that it is able to secure. There may be folks riding CHT for free but it’s not the citizens of CH or Carrboro or the students at UNC.

  14. Bonnie:

    Your point doesn’t make any sense. George C. is right. A good place to start would be for people with cars to pay for what they actually use. I am really tired of people not affected by something with no real knowledge whining about it.

    Terri is also right that buses would have to be retrofitted. The other option is for UNC to go private like Duke and put the Town on its own, but we are very lucky that the University and the Town work together on public transportation.

    Sticking it to the poor and University students is not where one should start to solve a problem. As a point of reference a mom tonight at the Loop reminded her daughter to remember her phone and iPad. That’s about $1,000 worth of stuff in the hands of a 13 year old. We can afford a few bucks so the working poor can get to work

    Certainly if you can afford to drive or live outside the Town limits and use the Park & Ride, you are paying for the convenience of your lifestyle. Why should the poor pay their “fair share,” when those out of Town use Chapel Hill Roads, buses and services for free?

  15. Why does someone who lives in Hillsborough even want to get involved in a local issue in Chapel Hill?

    Even though I paid for the Triangle Sportsplex twice, I don’t get involved in Hillsborough politics. Although, I would love an explanation as to why they build a Senior Center that many seniors I know in the area complained made it harder for them.

    If you don’t want to pay the Park & Ride fee, then buy a house in Chapel Hill.