‘On Flag Day’

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

Sunday was Flag Day.

You might consider burning a flag to celebrate.

That’s absurd, of course.

Sort of.

It’s absurd because it’s absurd to burn the flag, the symbol of this nation since Betsy Ross sewed the first stars and stripes in 1776. The flag has been planted at Iwo Jima by the Marines, at the North Pole by Admiral Peary, and on the moon by Neil Armstrong as the signature of this country and all the freedoms it stands for. It flies over the White House and over used-car lots, over the Capitol and over fast-food joints, over the Tomb of the Unknowns and over junkyards.

It’s painted on the noses of our airplanes, tattooed on the arms of our bikers, sewn on the crotches of our underwear.

Patriots salute it, soap-box orators clutch it, artists deface it.

And, sometimes, people burn it.

And that might be the greatest symbol of all, the ultimate proof
of our freedom. For if we are free to burn the emblem of freedom,
then we are truly free. “We do not consecrate the flag by
punishing its desecration,” the Supreme Court said in 1989 when it
upheld a citizen’s right to burn the flag, “for in doing so we
dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”

Yet that undiluted freedom is now in peril.

A year ago, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 310
to 114 an amendment to the Constitution that would give Congress
the power to prohibit the desecration of the flag. Democratic Rep.
Leonard Boswell wrongly voted in favor of that resolution, just as
his predecessor, Republican Jim Ross Lightfoot, did in an earlier
effort in 1995. The Senate defeated that earlier effort, but now
the amendment is before the Senate again, and this time the vote is
seen as being so close that no one wants to predict whether it will
get the 67 votes it needs to pass. As you’d expect, Republican Sen.
Charles Grassley is one of the co-sponsors of the amendment; as
you’d expect, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin opposes it — as do we.

If it passes, it then goes to the states, where it must be
ratified by 38 legislatures before it can become the 28th Amendment
to the Constitution. That would seem like a formidable obstacle,
yet egged on by the American Legion 49 of the 50 states — all but
Vermont — have already passed resolutions indicating they favor the

So the Senate vote, which probably will be this month or next,
is vital.

It is vital to our right to speak out.

It is vital to our right to protest.

It is vital to our very freedom.

There’s no question that it’s dumb to burn the flag, and few
people ever do it. Since that Supreme Court decision upholding the
right to burn it as symbolic political speech, only 30 to 40 people
have actually done it — and, ironically, they’ve done it mainly in
protest of the attempts to bar the burning. But for whatever
reason, it’s an outrageous and outlandish and outright stupid thing
to do. Yet that is why the right to do it must be protected. For it
is the outrageous and outlandish and outright stupid things that
people do and say that we must fight for. It is for these things
and these people that the First Amendment exists. Gentle people
saying sweet things need no First Amendment. Kind folks writing
soothing words need no First Amendment. Orderly folks marching in
tidy protests need no First Amendment.

No, the First Amendment is for the shouters on street corners,
the pamphleteers on campuses — the flag burners at rallies.

So, as you hoist your flag, think about the freedoms it stands
for as it goes up that pole.

But think, too, about the even greater freedoms it stands for
when it goes up in flames.