The Oath Keepers came under scrutiny last week after several community members objected to its participation in Douglas County’s Adopt-a-Highway program.
Groups participating in the program clean up a stretch of road and are acknowledged with roadside signs. In the Oath Keepers’ case, the signs are located on Garden Valley Road not far from the Roseburg city limits. County officials said the group’s sign has been up since 2015, but it became an issue last month after objections were raised at a Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting.
County: Free speech prevails for highway sign
Opponents say the group is linked to extremism and white supremacy, while the Oath Keepers reject those labels and describe themselves as patriots opposed to unconstitutional laws.
Either way, it seems Douglas County isn’t the first government to grapple with controversy over its Adopt-a-Highway program.
Governments from Georgia to Missouri to Marion County, Oregon, have had to deal with controversial groups seeking to establish Adopt-a-Highway signs along their roadways.
In those cases, as in this one, the issue ultimately boiled down to freedom of speech.
Back in 1994, for example, the state of Missouri tried to reject the Ku Klux Klan’s application to adopt a piece of highway.
According to Smithsonian.com, the Klan then filed a federal lawsuit saying its constitutional rights were being violated. A federal judge agreed, saying that if Missouri allowed other groups to join, they had to open the program to the Klan too. If not, the court said, they were violating the Klan’s free speech rights.
The sign went up, but it appears the state had the last laugh. It renamed that stretch of Interstate 55 the Rosa Parks Highway.
Eventually, the Klan lost its signs anyway as it turned out the organization wasn’t picking up any trash.
The state of Georgia dealt with a similar problem in 2012, when the Klan applied to adopt a section of roadway there. As in Missouri, the courts rejected Georgia’s attempt to block it. The state responded by suspending its entire Adopt-a-Highway program.
Oregon’s Marion County faced its own controversial roadway sign problem in 2005, when the American Nazi Party adopted a stretch of county road outside Salem. The sign, reading “American Nazi Party,” was built and installed but soon after was vandalized and destroyed, Marion County Public Works Director Brian Nicholas wrote in an email.
“The group ended its participation with the adopt-a-road program and the sign was never reinstalled. The sign was in place for less than two weeks,” Nicholas said.
So who are the Oath Keepers of Douglas County, and why is its Adopt-a-Highway sign so controversial?
Oath Keepers bills itself as a group of current and former police officers and military veterans who have sworn not to obey laws its members believe are unconstitutional.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oath Keepers is a radical anti-government group loosely connected with other groups in what’s been called the patriot movement. Some refer to patriot groups as militias because they sometimes show up armed to various events where they assert they are providing security.
Recently, for example, the national Oath Keepers group put out a call on its website for members to provide security for attendees at President Donald Trump’s rallies. Closer to home, Oath Keepers offered to provide security to Oregon’s Republican state senators who walked out over climate legislation this year, though that offer was rejected.
The group was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate and Army veteran who purveys conspiracy theories such as the idea that if Hillary Clinton were president she would detain militia movement members without trial and order the military to go house-to-house to disarm Americans.
It appears Rhodes has recently attempted to create some distance from white supremacists, though. OPB reported Rhodes urged Oath Keepers to avoid a Portland rally in August, saying the group should not associate itself with white nationalists he believed would be attending.
John Parker, Jr., a former associate of the local Oath Keepers group that was involved in adopting the roadway back in 2015, said the group isn’t made up of white supremacists and has gotten a bad rap thanks to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which he said is like a left-wing version of the right-wing conspiracy website InfoWars.
Parker thinks the solution to the local controversy is simple, though. He said Oath Keepers members are no longer cleaning up the roadway and its sign should be removed for that reason. Parker said he’s observed a local man who currently walks that stretch of road every few weeks picking up garbage.
He said the sign should be renamed after that guy.