Alaska House urges flag-protection amendment

Thursday, April 9, 1998

A vote in the Alaska House Wednesday puts the legislature there on track to become the 50th and final state to pass a resolution urging Congress to ratify a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the American flag.

The 34-5 vote, however, comes as no surprise to either supporters or opponents of the amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would allow Congress to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag.

“We have had, what, 49 states at one time or another passing resolutions in support of this amendment?” asked Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, a group opposing the amendment.

“Before Texas v. Johnson [the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down flag-protection laws], we had laws criminalizing flag-burning in 48 states,” Goldberg said. “No one is doubting that if this thing gets past the U.S. Senate, the states are going to ratify it.”

Steve Thomas, spokesman for the American Legion, praised the Alaska House, adding: “It would be great if all 50 state were on board for this.”

Thomas noted that many polls show that as many as 80 percent of Americans support flag-protection measures.

“A validating factor for those polls seems to be the support of the state legislatures,” Thomas said. “Those legislatures are voting the will of the people. And we hope the U.S. Senate will do the same.”

The Alaska resolution, which carries no force of law, supports U.S. House Joint Resolution No. 59 and Senate Joint Resolution 40, the two bills that would create the flag amendment. The U.S. House's resolution passed with the required two-thirds majority. The Senate has not held a vote on the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled twice—first in the 1989 case Texas v. Johnson and again in the 1990 case U.S. v. Eichman—that flag-burning is protected by the free speech guarantee in the First Amendment.

The resolution in the Alaska House faced heated debate before the members approved it.

“When you desecrate the flag, you desecrate us,” said Rep. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, referring to an Anchorage demonstration in which protesters walked on the flag. “When you walk on the flag, you walk on us.”

Only a handful of Democrats opposed the measure, which now goes to the state Senate.

House Minority Leader Gene Kubina described burning the flag as the ultimate protest in a society that allows free speech.

“One of the biggest reasons that people have gone and fought wars is to protect those other rights in the Constitution and one of those is the freedom of speech,” said Kubina, D-Valdez.

Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, sponsored the resolution.

“I believe that Alaskans are very strong in their belief that the flag should not be desecrated,” Kott said. “The flag has been enshrined as a symbol of what is right in America.”

Rep. Ethan Berkowitz spoke of his family's flight from Nazi oppression to freedom in America.

“This country has been a beacon of freedom and that flag that waves is a symbol of that freedom,” said Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. “It's because I love the flag and cherish what it stands for that I'm going to have to vote against this resolution.”

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related items:

  • Stan Tiner's testimony to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution
  • Flying the flag, flouting the First Amendment 4.1.98
  • Senate proposal to protect flag looks like China's law, says ACLU attorney 3.26.98
  • American Legion