Flag-protection supporters rally behind amendment

Friday, April 10, 1998

For the 20-million-member Citizens Flag Alliance, nothing is more important than protecting the flag.

United in that one purpose, dozens of the group's members packed a March 25 Senate subcommittee hearing on Senate Resolution 40, which would amend the U.S. Constitution to allow Congress to pass measures forbidding desecration of the American flag.

Several months ago, the group launched an Internet site to inform its members how to lobby state and federal lawmakers. Almost a dozen American Legion workers and volunteers handle calls to the alliance's toll-free support line.

Meanwhile, opponents to the proposed amendment — those who decry government flag-protection efforts as a clear violation of the First Amendment — have been noticeably absent from debates on the issue.

Few attended the subcommittee hearing, which was also left uncovered by the nation's media. Only a recent guest commentary in USA TODAY from constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein, who testified against the amendment, stands in stark contrast to the scant news coverage of the issue.

“Why the newspaper industry doesn't come out more for it, I can't say,” said Stan Tiner, editor of the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register, a military veteran who also testified against the amendment. “Maybe we haven't done a good enough job of informing them of where the matter stands?”

The nation is perilously close to a new constitutional amendment, some say. After the House last year voted 310-114 in support of an amendment, 56 senators latched on as co-sponsors to a resolution introduced this February in their chamber. At least a half dozen more have voiced their support.

The resolution requires 66 votes to pass. If the Senate approves the resolution, the amendment will go to the states for ratification, where approval is almost certain.

“Something is seriously hanging in the balance right now with a handful of senators,” said Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, a group opposing the amendment. “And it's a little distressing that we haven't got the level of support that we know we have.”

Goldberg said his group hopes to jump-start media coverage in the next few days with an alert.

“We know the senators voting against the resolution could really use the public support,” he said. “They are going out on limb out here. They need to know that people are going to pat them on the back for voting against the amendment.”

Goldberg noted that while the media must focus on hundreds of issues and stories other than flag-burning, the Citizens Flag Alliance has the luxury of worrying only about the flag-protection amendment.

“That's what happens when you get a force single-minded in purpose,” he said. “The Citizens Flag Alliance has one goal: to get this amendment passed.”

Steve Thomas of the American Legion agreed but said the group also has the will of the people behind it. He cites polls that show that as many as 80 percent of the American public support efforts to protect the flag.

“We hope the will of the people will become the law of the land in respect to the national symbol of our liberty,” Thomas said.

But the “will of the people” argument remains under debate.

While numerous surveys show an overwhelming percentage of Americans supporting legislative measures to protect the flag, the numbers drop dramatically for support of a constitutional amendment.

A recent Freedom Forum poll showed that 78 percent of those surveyed disagreed that people have the right to desecrate the American flag. But when asked if they would support amending the U.S. Constitution to prohibit flag-burning, only 49 percent said they would.

In the state legislatures — the governing bodies that would vote on the flag amendment if it were to pass the Senate — support is unified. Forty-nine state legislatures over the past few years have adopted resolutions urging Congress to pass flag-protection measures.

On Thursday, the Kansas House quickly passed an updated resolution on a voice vote. Although Alaska remains the lone holdout, the state House there approved a resolution on Wednesday and sent it to the state Senate for debate.

But Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney for People for the American Way, said he's confident the amendment won't ever leave the U.S. Senate.

Ottinger said he thinks it will be defeated, as undecided lawmakers remember that no Congress has ever used a constitutional amendment to restrict the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

“It would be ironic to voluntarily surrender freedoms that everyone fought for in the name of the flag and under the flag,” he said. “I think we can best protect the flag by protecting the freedom it represents.”

When the Senate voted on a similar flag-protection amendment in 1995, the measure fell just three votes shy of passage. Voting promises to be as close this time around when it reaches the floor around June 14, Flag Day.

Proponents and opponents point to four senators — Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.; and Barbara Mikulski, D-Mass. — as being undecided on the issue and, thus, targets for intense lobbying.

Although all four voted against a similar amendment when it appeared in the Senate in 1995, at least three have voiced support for a legislative act.

“I cannot support an Amendment which would, for the first time in our nation's history, narrow the reach of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech,” Mikulski writes in a letter she sends to constituents who ask her to support the amendment.

Although Mikulski supports a legislative flag-protection act, the senator will vote against the amendment, said her spokeswoman Laura Chapin.

Spokespeople for Lieberman and Dorgan gave similar comments. Calls to Conrad's office were not returned.

The American Legion's Thomas said the Citizens Flag Alliance hasn't targeted specific senators but instead is focusing on them all.

“Maybe, just maybe, we could convince our grass-roots supporters that the swing senator could be his or her senator,” Thomas said. “Joe and Jane Voter then would be inspired to call or write. I think everybody's in play.”

The Press-Register's Tiner said he believes many members of Congress would concede privately that the amendment is a bad idea but wouldn't vote against it for political reasons.

“Not to say that we don't have any courageous congressmen, but I would say that there are many who are not,” he said. “It's a much easier course for people to vote for the amendment than to not.”