‘Flag amendment’s intolerable price’

Monday, July 13, 1998

Three votes.

It's all that separates free speech as we know it from its most imposing threat in more than 200 years.

At issue: A proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration, one version of which has passed the U.S. House of Representatives while another barrels its way through the Senate.

If backers are successful in getting the necessary 67 Senate votes — 64 have committed so far — the amendment would go out to all 50 states for consideration.

On the surface, it might seem an easy call. Flag burning is a stupid, senseless and horribly offensive act — one that this newspaper, which features the flag symbol in its nameplate, would never condone.

And yet, it is that sense of patriotism — and our indelible support of free speech as the most precious and fundamental of human rights — that makes it impossible to defend any such amendment.

By making flag desecration a crime, we give greater value to a piece of cloth, a symbol, than the rights of the people whose freedom it represents. That's not the kind of America our founding fathers envisioned when they crafted the First Amendment, which allows you and us to express ourselves freely and openly regardless of our politics.

Flag burning is a form of expression. Radical, yes. Profoundly unpatriotic, without a doubt. But by banning it, we commit an even greater sin.

For if unpopular forms of expression aren't protected, then nothing is. Make one exception, redraw the line even a little, and the die is cast.

Where, then, will we stop? What other symbols, what other objects, will be deemed untouchable, and more sacred than our rights as Americans? A reprint of the Constitution? A post card of the president?

It's a precedent we cannot afford to set.

Nor can we look upon the symbolic desecration of a flag, regardless of that cloth's honor or importance, as more vile or punishable than a Klan march or any other form of expression that insults one's race or religion.

As long as those acts are peaceful, they're protected by the First Amendment.

Sixty-four senators disagree with us. But don't disregard their political motivations. A formal vote isn't expected until sometime in early fall — right before the November elections.

In the meantime, backers of the flag amendment will be lobbying hard for those three swing votes.

They mustn't get them. We cannot permit ourselves, or vote-starved lawmakers, to get carried away with emotion, politics or a misguided sense of patriotism.

To do so would make a mockery of the very institution flag-amendment supporters want to save. And send us down the same dangerous path those brave early patriots fought so hard to protect us from.