Do we really need a constitutional amendment against flag-burning?

Friday, June 4, 1999

Remember the theoretical question we’ve all
been asked: “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one
there to hear it, does it make any sound?”

Well, there are events in life that I think occur simply to
provoke thought and discussion and I personally think the current
debate in Washington over a proposed constitutional amendment to
ban flag burning might be one of those events.

While I feel it is personally repulsive for someone to burn our
American flag, do we need a constitutional amendment against it?

Didn’t our forefathers come to this land to escape the political
repression of freedom of speech? And whether or not we agree with
it, isn’t the burning of a flag or the wearing of it on a pair of
jeans or the back of a jacket an expression of speech even though
no words are spoken?

The effort to get the constitutional amendment before the people
is one that has run into problems. While it has consistently passed
the House, it has never gotten the two-thirds vote needed in the
Senate to send the measure to the states.

And if you’ll recall the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) of some
years ago, once the amendment goes to the states, it must be
ratified by three-fourths or 38 of the states to make it part of
the constitution.

But in the 208 years since the first 10 amendments were ratified
on Dec. 15, 1791, changes to our constitution have come slowly and
with reason.

There is a reason our founding fathers decided it would take a
two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, followed by a
three-fourths vote of the states, before the constitution could be

The most compelling reason, perhaps, is time.

While the action in the House and Senate comes during a session,
it takes time for the states to ratify a constitutional amendment.

Remember all of the momentum behind the ERA?

Early on, those proponents of the amendment pushed hard and were
able to gain ratification in a number of states … but as times
and emotions changed, the ratification process slowed to the point
the amendment died with little more than a whimper as the 13-year
clock rain out.

The last time we amended our constitution was on May 7, 1992,
when Michigan ratified the 27th amendment, which said no law
varying the amount of compensation of senators and representatives
could take effect until an election of the representatives was

Prior to that, it was on July 1, 1971, when the last amendment
was ratified by three-fourths of the states. That one, the 26th,
gave the vote to 18-year-olds.

There was a flurry of four amendments approved between March 29,
1961, and July 1, 1971, during the era of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon
Johnson and Richard Nixon, but by and large, ratification of
amendments has not been an easy task.

To be honest, I can’t stand it when I see someone burn our flag.
I find it to be offensive when I see demonstrators in China burning
it, but I find it vile when I see an American citizen desecrating
our colors.

I personally don’t feel that burning the flag is a right
guaranteed by the constitution, but the Supreme Court disagrees.
Two times, the court has declared flag-burning laws
unconstitutional abridgments of free speech.

Perhaps you will agree that it is a perplexing question …
after all, the flag is a symbol of our country and the red in the
flag stands for the blood that has been shed over the years in
defense of our great land.

And our great land … remember again that it was founded by
those who sought to get away from political and religious tyranny
… who sought a better place … one where they might feel free to
speak their mind or otherwise express themselves.

Two-hundred years later, who’s to say that doesn’t include the
burning of the flag?

John H. Walker is editor of the Big Spring Herald.