‘Flag Day coming — how can we tell?’

Thursday, May 7, 1998

Flag Day 1998 approaches.

How can you tell?

Is it from the hint of patriotism on display? The few flags that yet
from building and home?

Certainly, as June 14 approaches, the Stars and Stripes will multiply,
seeking attention from the wind.

But a far more accurate measure for predicting the approach of Flag Day
the growing contention in Congress over a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States authorizing Congress to prohibit the physical desecration of the American flag (SJ Res 40).

There are several such proposals in Congress, but SJ Res 40 is moving with special alacrity due to its sponsorship by 60 senators, including — we are chagrined to report — Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl.

Those who support federal law prohibiting desecration of the American flag make eloquent arguments. Symbols are important, they say. They remind us of who, and what, we are.

Symbols help bind us together, they argue, giving us a common identity.

Similarly, the American flag serves as a symbol of our great nation,
in the Congressional Record as “representing, in a way nothing else can, the common bond shared by an otherwise diverse people. Whatever our differences of party, race, religion, or socioeconomic status, the flag reminds us that we are very much one people, united in a shared destiny, bonded in a common faith in our nation.”

There are moving quotes from Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote in a court opinion, “A country’s flag is a symbol of more than nationhood and national unity. It also signifies the ideas that characterize the society that has chosen that emblem as well as the special history that has animated the growth and power of those ideas … . So it is with the American flag. It is more than a proud symbol of the courage, the determination, and the gifts of a nation that transformed 13 fledgling colonies into a world power. It is a symbol of freedom, of equal opportunity,
of religious tolerance, and of goodwill for other peoples who share our aspirations.”

This is moving rhetoric, to be sure.

But rhetoric it remains. It fails to justify outlawing actions undertaken by free people that harm no one. It fails to justify the overturning of a fundamental right of free speech that is a foundation upon which our country is built.

In recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Stan Tiner, editor of the Mobile (Ala.) Register and 1997-98 chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Freedom of Information
Committee, said, the “Flag Desecration Act, without doubt, would especially undermine the public’s First Amendment right to free speech.”

Just how great is flag desecration in the United States?

Tiner said that since 1990, when the Supreme Court ruled that the destruction of the flag in political protest constitutes protected and lawful speech, about five flag-burnings per year have been recorded.

He said, “I would submit that greater crimes against the flag are committed by well-intentioned or perhaps simply thoughtless persons who have not understood the large measure of disrespect shown casually and routinely by
thousands of Americans each and every day.

“Witness a Fourth of July celebration I observed, during which a businessman placed hundreds of miniature flags around the city in an attempt to honor America while earning the good will and approbation of fellow citizens.

“Within a few days, rains had washed many of the flags into street gutters. Others were ground into muddy spots. I observed a dog relieving itself on a flag. No one bothered to pick up the flags. They had simply become a part of the trash and litter of a moment in time.”

Will the flag police, Tiner asked, come and take away the neglectful couple or the merchant who abuses flags in such a fashion? All in the name of protecting the symbol of our freedoms?

The American flag is indeed more than a piece of cloth. It can be burned, waved upside down or washed into a gutter by rain. Yet even in those pathetic, outrageous conditions it still protects the freedom of the very actions that
brought it down.

Nothing should ever change that.

Copyright (c) 1998, Phoenix Newspapers Inc.