On the flag-burning amendment

Thursday, July 22, 1999

Our national birthday party has come and gone but the image of spectacular fireworks lingers in our mind's eye. The smoky flavor of meat hot off the grill is on the back of our tongue. The leftover ice cream is in the freezer, awaiting another urge to beat the summer heat with the coolest of calories. The community concerts or family gatherings that brought us together are over and we are once again moving to the familiar rhythms of everyday life.

It is an appropriate time to reflect on the latest efforts to amend our Constitution and allow Congress to draft flag protection laws. The U.S. House of Representatives has for the third time approved a flag amendment.

“Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States,” reads the legislation. It was passed by a 305-124 vote on June 24. The proposed amendment must now be passed by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate and then by two-thirds of the states to be enacted.

This is a dangerous amendment and should not be approved.

That view springs not from disdain for our country but from our understanding of how this 223-year-old experiment in democracy really works. If it is to continue working, we must grant those who would show disrespect for our flag, or any other national symbol, the freedom to do so.

It is only through granting others the freedom to act in ways we find despicable that we guarantee our own liberty. In the summer of 1776, those men who founded this country knew that. They were all too familiar with the price exacted by a government that allowed no dissent, that stifled speech, reined in the press of the day and imposed its own religious beliefs on the populace.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled twice, in 1989 and again in 1990, that flag protection laws are unconstitutional. They clearly violate the First Amendment right to free speech and therefore cannot be enacted. If the proposed amendment approved by a patriotic but misguided House is approved, it will nullify the First Amendment that guarantees us our most precious freedoms.

Think for a moment what this country would be like if those freedoms are taken away.

Those in power could stifle the opinions voiced on this page. They could tell this newspaper what to print, when to print it and where to print it. Letters to the editor, which often disagree with our editorial policy, could be banned unless they reflected the government line.

In a land with no First Amendment it would be dangerous to criticize the president, the Congress, the governor, the Legislature, the mayor or the City Council. Those with the power to punish citizens who dare criticize their action would surely use it.

And in a country that now embraces religion of all kinds, we could be faced with accepting the religious beliefs of those we elect, rather than the faith we come to by examination of our own conscience.

Those who burn or otherwise desecrate the American flag tread on a symbol cherished by the vast majority of our citizens. We who salute the flag, who fly the flag, who treat the flag with reverence and respect, are surely wise enough to allow that small minority the right to do otherwise.

If we are not that wise we lose the essence of the national celebration we enjoyed on the Fourth of July.