By ANAHAD O’CONNOR and THOMAS KAPLAN
NEW HAVEN, April 4 — The three Yale students were on their way back to campus about 3 a.m. Tuesday after visiting a friend. Along the way, they spotted an American flag hanging from a front porch and, according to the police, went up to it with a lighter. Within minutes, the flag was in flames, and the students were under arrest.
The case has shot up the media food chain and set the halls abuzz on this rarefied campus, which has a reputation for liberal politics. It is not hard to interpret the burning of a flag as a political statement, particularly now, when the country is at war. But was it an act fueled by political passion, youthful whim, a prank gone out of control, or some combination of the three?
No one seems to know. According to the police, the students said that they regretted their actions, but did not explain what drove them to burn the flag. Those who know the young men say they were not known for being politically active. They pointed out that the act took place in the dead of night on a quiet street about two miles from campus, not the usual setting to stage a protest.
“It was something out of the blue,” said Benjamin Flores, a freshman who lives in the students’ dormitory.
Two of the students, Nikolaos Angelopoulos and Farhad Anklesaria, are 19. According to the authorities, Mr. Angelopoulos is a citizen of Greece, and Mr. Anklesaria is British. The third student, Hyder Akbar, 23, was raised in Afghanistan but is a United States citizen. He is an acquaintance of Rahmatullah Hashemi, the former Taliban spokesman who made headlines when he enrolled at Yale. In an article in The New York Times Magazine last year about Mr. Hashemi’s adjustment to life at Yale, Mr. Hashemi described Mr. Akbar as a friend.
A lawyer for the students, Sanford O. Bruce III, did not return telephone calls on Wednesday.
The police said the three students flagged down two officers on the way back to campus, saying they needed directions to their dorm. The officers gave them directions and left.
But minutes later, the officers circled back and saw that a large flag hanging from a pole on a house at 512 Chapel Street was in flames. One of the officers put out the fire, and the other tracked down the three students. They were arrested and face charges that include criminal mischief, arson, breach of peace and reckless endangerment. The authorities would not comment on whether the three were still behind bars, but an online register of inmates showed that Mr. Akbar and Mr. Anklesaria remained on the list, while Mr. Angelopoulos did not, an indication that he had posted bail and been released.
“They decided after it happened that it wasn’t the smartest thing to do,” said Bonnie Posick, a police spokeswoman. “I don’t think it was a matter of them exercising their constitutional right to burn the flag. It was more like a criminal mischief type of incident.”
A tenant of the house, Bart Connors, 48, said he was asleep when the flag, went up in flames. He awoke to find police officers and a fire truck in front of the house. “I don’t think that at 3 a.m. they were trying to make a statement,” he said. “This is usually a very friendly and safe neighborhood.” He added, “Unless you’re a flag, apparently.”
Yale may also punish the students. Tom Conroy, a Yale spokesman, said he could not comment on individual students, but referred to a section of the university’s code that says “off-campus misconduct” can lead to disciplinary action, including suspension or expulsion.
Yale students varied in their view of the flag-burning. “his wasn’t freedom of speech,” said Gordon Siu, a freshman. “It was just reckless vandalism of private property.”
“Much ado about nothing” was how another student, Geoffrey Shaw, described the case. “But the media loves it,” he added. “It represents the confluence of anti-Americanism abroad with elitism at home.”
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