Flag amendment may hinge on North Dakota senators

Thursday, May 21, 1998

North Dakota's two U.S. senators seem to be the pivotal votes in the push to pass a constitutional amendment allowing Congress to draft legislation banning flag desecration. But so far the impending vote seems to have caught the North Dakota press unaware, even though the amendment would restrict free expression.

Only two editorials — a staff-written piece in the Grand Forks Herald and a guest editorial from the Citizens Flag Alliance in the Steele-Ozone Press — make up the state's coverage of the amendment since it was introduced in the Senate last February, according to a clipping service operated by the North Dakota News Association.

“At this point it doesn't seem to be a driving front-page issue,” said Denise Bjornson, the media group's executive director. “But that doesn't mean it won't become one.”

Bjornson said stories about the economy and recovery efforts from major flooding last year dominate the news there. “Leadership is also a big issue in North Dakota,” she said.

Meanwhile, the nation, some say, stands perilously close to amending the Constitution so that it limits, for the first time, Americans' basic rights of free expression.

Last year, the House voted 310-114 in support of an amendment allowing Congress to ban flag desecration. More than five dozen senators last February latched onto a resolution in their chamber.

The resolution requires 67 votes to pass. If the Senate approves the resolution, the amendment will go to the states for ratification, where approval — 38 state legislatures have to ratify the amendment — is almost certain.

An informal count by the First Amendment Center earlier this month found 63 senators favoring the amendment while 34 opposed it. Three senators said they were uncommitted, although Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she was leaning in favor of the measure. The Citizens Flag Alliance, which supports the amendment, now counts Landrieu as firmly in their camp, which would bring the total to 64.

That leaves Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, both North Dakota Democrats, as the lone undecided votes. Even though both senators voted against a flag amendment in 1995, they've been targeted as important votes.

Some speculate that if Conrad and Dorgan vote for the amendment, Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, might change his mind, saying he didn't want to be considered the deciding vote against such an amendment.

Solange Bitol, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said such indecision leaves the flag vote to speculation. “I think anything's possible,” Bitol said. “I don't think anybody wants to be the last person to vote or the odd person out.

Said Elliot Mincberg, legal director of the People for the American Way, “When you get down to those last few folks, it gets a little tricky to predict precisely how people will vote. It's hard to go down and say that Conrad and Dorgan are the two swing votes. But they are important.”

Back in the senators' home state, which potentially could become the battleground for the Flag Protection Act, interest and coverage of the measure have been scant, media representatives there tell the First Amendment Center.

“We really haven't had any coverage this time around,” said Don Davis, political writer for the Bismarck Tribune. “In the past, there have been a lot of people on one side or the other, and we were getting all kinds of press releases. But this year, there's been nothing.”

Tom Dennis, opinion page editor for the Grand Forks Herald, said, “Speaking as a reader of our newspaper, I think here is a place where our coverage has been lacking, particularly when you are noting the importance of our senators' votes.”

Dennis said his staff wrote an editorial last month opposing the amendment “but doing so with great respect to the people who favor it. We tried to take pains to not be snide and say people are trying to subvert the Constitution.”

He said he hadn't received as many press releases or commentaries on the issue as he has in the past. “I would say that we have gotten one every two or three weeks, but certainly not so many that I have the luxury of picking and choosing from a lot of opinions,” he said.

Mincberg said: “It would be great if newspapers in North Dakota would pay a little attention.”

But he noted that North Dakota's inattention seems to be typical among the nation's media. Few newspapers and other media outlets have followed the flag amendment debate or have offered editorials about it.

“I wouldn't go so far as to call it a stealth amendment, but this has gotten an incredibly small amount of attention,” Mincberg said. “Perhaps newspaper editors are thinking, 'Oh no. Here it comes again.' “