Four Ohio University students who live off campus have been at the center of a controversy this past week over a flag of the ancient Roman standard they hung off the deck of their student rental. Some neighbors and local residents have alleged that the flag is among the symbols that white supremacist/nationalist organizations displayed during this past August’s far-right protests in Charlottesville.
The student tenants, however, insist that the flag is the remnant of a “Roman-themed” party they put on for the 21st birthday of one of the residents. The flag does not represent any hate-based organization or allegiance with any such organization, they said.
The controversy kicked off when the local activist organization, the People’s Justice League, took a photo of the student rental on East State Street in Athens with the flag displayed prominently, and posted it online.
“ACTION NEEDED PLEASE SHARE. We were informed that someone living at (street address number) in Athens, OH may be a Nazi,” the post reads. “The flag that can now be seen on the balcony has recently replaced a Trump flag. The current flag is used by many fascist groups including Vanguard America and was identified in the recent article by the Southern Poverty Law Center titled, ‘Flags and Other Symbols Used by Far-Right Groups in Charlottesville.’”
The post asks people concerned about the flag to call the residents' landlord, and urges "all Athens landlords to have a clause in their lease agreements stating that banners/signage/flags that are sexually suggestive or hateful in nature will not be allowed."
The OU students who live at the residence spoke with The NEWS Friday afternoon, but requested not to be identified due to their fear of damage to their reputation and their ability to join the professional world once they graduate. They said Friday that they’ve been getting harassed and called “Nazi sympathizers” ever since the image of their house was posted online. All four residents openly admitted they are conservative supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, but vehemently deny allegations that they are Nazi supporters, white supremacists, white nationalists, or members of the “alt-right” movement.
“Yeah we’re Trump supporters, but also this has nothing to do with it,” the group’s spokesperson said.
The students argued that the flag (which they said was stolen from their home early Saturday morning) is simply a “Roman legion flag,” and does not represent the hate groups as seen in Charlottesville. They also said the keg leftover from the party was stolen from their front porch over the weekend as well.
The students, two of whom are minoring in history and consider themselves students of history, argue that the lack of a “fasces” underneath the flag, as seen in the SPLC article referenced by the People’s Justice League, differentiates the Roman flag they are flying from the flag used by hate groups. The “fasces” is a small bundle of sticks with an axe, and that element is not present on the flag that the students were flying. The students said they purchased what they considered a “party flag” off Amazon.
However, according to the SPLC article, the Roman legion flag in general has been co-opted by far-right groups. It describes the flag this way: “Flag depicting an eagle holding a fasces standing inside of a laurel wreath. Each of these symbols have been adopted by various elements of the far right.”
The students who live at the house issued a cease-and-desist letter to the People’s Justice League late last week, asking to meet with director Sarah Fick and for the post to be taken down, as well as a public apology to be issued.
“The significant difference in the Roman standard and the fascist appropriation of said standard stems form the inclusion of a fasces… The omission of this critical detail upon our flag demonstrates our non-affiliation with these groups you claim we represent,” the letter reads. “Furthermore, one of the tenants recently threw a 21st birthday party with a Roman theme. Most of the tenants… possess an avid interest in history, particularly Roman history… In your own photograph proving we are ‘supremacists’ a keg can clearly be seen on the left-hand side of the stairs. We also possess invitations, which we will release assuming respectable discourse with your organization has been established.”
The students’ spokesperson provided a screenshot of the invitation apparently sent to people for the “Roman-themed” party. It includes an image of a keg and a cartoon man in a toga, with the date and time of the party (Sept. 23), and the screenshot appears to have been taken on Sept. 20. The students also provided an image of the setup of the party, with a keg, and a blurry, dark video of one of the students apparently doing a keg stand during said party.
Prior to the Roman flag being put up, the students said they had flown a Trump flag from the same railing. When the city of Athens’ code enforcement office stopped by last Thursday, they took the flag down, replaced it with the Trump flag. Once they applied for and received a permit from the city, they put the Roman flag back up.
In a statement after the flag was taken down, the four students who live at the house called those protesting and allegedly harassing them “bullies.” Asked why they wouldn’t just remove the flag due to its association with hate groups, they said they “cannot be complicit in our rights being infringed upon due to the vitriolic ignorance of a few radical individuals.
“One of the fundamental reasons we decided to keep the flag up in the face of such hostility rests on principle,” the group said in the statement. “Essentially a group of people are harassing, intimidating, and otherwise displaying signs of bigotry towards us based upon our supposed beliefs. Quite simply, they are wrong and this flag does not represent whatever they want to make it out to be in their heads.”
Fick said in a brief interview Sunday that she’s not planning on taking the post down at this point, although she is considering the residents of the home’s request for a meeting.
“I think they know exactly what they’re doing,” Fick said. “…A number of community members have contacted me and said they did speak with them. Based on their attitude and their line of reasoning on this, everything they’re saying and doing aligns with everything that white supremacist, far-right, neo-Nazis are saying and doing… I’m not convinced that they’re not white supremacists or neo-Nazis, but I never said that they definitely were for sure neo-Nazis.”
THE STUDENTS ARGUED that they are unfairly being smeared, and said that they wanted to keep the flag up to make a point about freedom of speech. As conservatives and as Trump supporters in Athens, they charged, their opinions and views are constantly being quashed or otherwise shouted down.
“This is a very liberal area,” one of the students said. “The word ‘Nazi’ can get you in a lot of trouble.”
The students said a report had been filed with the Athens Police Department against them for “hate speech,” although they filed a police report of their own detailing harassment they say they’ve experienced, with people apparently shouting at them outside their home, verbally attacking them as “Nazis” online, and placing “anti-racism” information packets on their porch.
At one point, the students said, one person came on their lawn and started criticizing them, leaving in the middle of their attempt to explain themselves, while calling them “white supremacists.” They identified that person as PJL’s Sarah Fick, but Fick denies that she went onto the property or spoke to them (she said she hasn’t met them yet).
The incident has also spurred some questions for the city of Athens. While the city’s sign ordinance typically requires people to apply for a permit to put up a sign, the city’s law director told city Service-Safety Director Paula Horan-Moseley this week that the city’s sign regulations do not apply to flags of a political nature, citing a 2008 Ohio Supreme Court decision.
“The law director has determined that (political) flags are outside of our sign regulations,” Horan-Moseley said.