* Updated July 1
Several Ohio communities are calling for Confederate flag merchandise bans at their local fairs, following nationwide protests against police brutality, and Ohio legislators’ rejection of a measure to ban Confederate flags at county and independent fairs earlier in June.
Although some county fair officials say bans could lead to legal challenges, the Ohio State Fair already has a ban in place and one county fair has announced a ban.
The Wayne County Fair announced late June 29 it would ban Confederate flag sales, following the Wooster City School District’s discussion of a resolution that would restrict the schools’ participation in the fair if Confederate flag sales were not banned.
Leah Nichols, a Medina County resident and former 4-H’er, started a petition to ban the flag at the Medina County Fair.
“I feel like with everything that’s going on, if there’s ever a time to have it happen, it’s now,” Nichols said.
The Medina County Fair Board discussed the petition and other community concerns in a board meeting June 24, according to a June 25 press release. The board has not banned the flag, based on legal counsel input about constitutional challenges, but did speak with vendors. The vendors, the fair board says, have agreed not to display or sell the flag this year.
The Canfield Fair also does not have a specific ban on Confederate flag sales. It does have a rule that allows the removal of obscene or offensive material, and has used that rule in the past to remove Confederate flags.
In Wayne County, Wooster City School District’s Board of Education was scheduled to discuss a resolution that stated if the fair allows Confederate flag sales, the district would not participate in any way in the fair.
The fair board appeared to preempt that, however, with its June 29 announcement.
In a statement, the Wayne County Fair Board said it has been in the middle of this debate over the past several years, with people calling for banning Confederate flag sales on one side, and people worrying about these bans infringing on First Amendment rights on the other. The fair board voted to ban vendors’ sales and displays of Confederate flags and memorabilia.
“In recent months the nation and our community has felt the stresses of racism and division … we believe that this is the time to support our community,” the statement reads.
The school district’s board of education approved its resolution June 30. Board members expressed appreciation for the fair’s decision during the meeting.
Nichols started the Medina County petition, which has received more than 5,000 signatures, a few weeks ago, after attending several Black Lives Matter protests in Medina Square and seeing Ohio legislators discuss and ultimately vote down an amendment to a bill that would have banned confederate flag sales at county fairs.
“I saw people in the community … wanting it, but didn’t see much getting done, so I decided to try to take a lead on it,” Nichols said.
Nichols, 25, grew up attending the fair and showed in 4-H through elementary school.
“I don’t really think that we have the right to ban people wearing it into the fair,” she said. “But I think that it’s a vendor contract issue … the fair board has every right there, to deny a vendor if they aren’t meeting their contract needs.”
Chuck Stiver, Medina County Fair Board president, said it’s not quite that simple. Medina County owns the fairgrounds. The fair’s legal counsel said case law shows that fairs are political subdivisions, and some fair activities are considered government functions.
“Because of that, it would subject us to constitutional challenges if we banned the sale and display of Confederate flags,” Stiver told Farm and Dairy.
Those constitutional challenges would be based on First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
Defending the fair against those challenges, Stiver said, “could create a tremendous financial burden to the fair.”
Stiver said, however, that the board member responsible for outside concessions talked to vendors about their concerns.
“We work closely with vendors,” Stiver said. “They understood and voluntarily agreed not to display or sell [the Confederate flag].”
He added that he does not recall the flag being a problem at previous fairs.
Nichols was glad to hear about the vendors’ response.
“I’m so pleased with what the vendors have decided to do,” Nichols said.
She added that she hopes that the fair will eventually add something to their vendor contracts to prevent Confederate flag sales for future years. She noted that the Ohio State Fair banned Confederate flag sales in 2015.
Alicia Shoults, marking and public relations director for the Ohio State Fair, said the state fair’s Confederate flag merchandise ban is written into vendor contracts. For a long time, the fair has had a policy that bans sales of merchandise with offensive lettering, wording or graphics. From 2015 on, this policy was determined to include Confederate flags and Confederate flag merchandise.
“Confederate memorabilia is now explicitly included as a prohibited item in our rental manual,” Shoults added, noting that vendors have to have all merchandise items approved and made part of their contracts.
Shoults said the state fair has not run into any constitutional challenges on their policies related to Confederate flags and memorabilia merchandise.
The Canfield Fair petition has more than 2,000 signatures. It asks the fair board to “explicitly ban the display and sale of all hate symbols, including the Confederate flag, at the Canfield Fair.”
George Roman, director of concessions and entertainment for the Canfield Fair, told Farm and Dairy while the fair does not have an explicit ban on the confederate flag, it does have a rule that allows the fair to remove obscene or offensive material.
Under this rule, the fair board can ask vendors to remove Confederate flags. Roman said only a few vendors have the flag as part of their normal merchandise.
“We’ve been monitoring this for the last 10 years,” Roman said. “[The vendors] cooperate with us fully. We’ve had no major incidents.”
The community responses came after an attempt to add an amendment to House Bill 655 that would have banned Confederate flag sales and displays at county and independent fairs.
State Rep. Juanita Brent (D-Cleveland) introduced the amendment June 10. She noted that the flag was already banned at the state fair.
“People feel very uncomfortable [with the Confederate flag], because it becomes a symbol of a nasty part of our history,” Brent said.
The Ohio Legislative Service Commission reported to the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee that the amendment could be a violation of the First Amendment.
Rep. Don Jones (R-Freeport), one of the bill’s sponsors, said the bill was created specifically to provide relief for county fairs struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic and to update Ohio fair laws. He worried the amendment would put the bill at risk. Rep. J. Kyle Koehler (R-Springfield) also expressed concern that adding the amendment could jeopardize the bill’s chances of passing.
The amendment was voted down 9-7, and the bill passed the Ohio House June 11 without it.
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