Flag desecration amendment would water down basic rights

Monday, August 3, 1998

The Omaha Beach scenes that open the current popular film, “Saving Private Ryan,” speak realistic volumes about war’s sacrifices for freedoms dearly held.

Old Glory is one of our most revered symbols of the freedom-based political system and the sacrifices on Normandy’s shores so long ago.

The physical fabric of the American flag, worthy of the highest respect and honor, is transient. It wears out and is replaced. And, yes, our flag is sometimes abused by misguided people trying to make a dramatic point.

But what doesn’t wear out, and what is not subject to destruction, is what the flag stands for: A unique society that can accept criticism and be stronger for it.

The so-called “flag desecration” amendment, approved in the House of Representatives last year and headed for the Senate floor in the next month or two, confuses the system with the symbol.

The amendment has no place in the U.S. Constitution. Such a measure would interfere with our freedoms by giving Congress too much power to limit expression that the Constitution guarantees to all.

Our freedoms derive from the consent of the governed to be bound by a common set of values, embodied in our Constitition. That document’s contents — not the flag — confer freedoms.

Sen. Carl Levin has long opposed this amendment, and we urge him to hold steadfast despite growing political pressures to go along with the crowd. Only a few more senators are needed to pass the measure by the required two-thirds vote and send it to the states. If it gets to state legislatures,faulty flag-waving rhetoric could sweep it to passage.

The amendment sets up Congress to judge that some expression — political statements involving physical damage to the flag — would be a crime. This amendment would give Congress, too subject to the whims of the populace, too much control over certain political acts.

But political protest is central to our system and has a grand tradition in such “statements” as tossing tea into Boston harbor to protest taxation. Words were secondary; the tea dumping told the message.

At risk with this proposed amendment are some nonverbal messages allowed by the First Amendment.

Enactment would stifle the operation of democracy at its fullest, with open and even offensive political statements. Political expression keeps democracy healthy.

Thousands of warriors fell at Omaha Beach and elsewhere in wars to protect and promote the freedoms granted by the U.S. Constitution. They did not sacrifice their lives to give Congress the power to shrink those rights to protest, even offensively and with a flag.