We don’t need state conductor for national anthem

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Who among us hasn’t cringed at a badly done performance of the national anthem?

But is “cringe-worthiness” enough to justify a fine for an irritating rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as one Indiana legislator has proposed?

The song itself presents a challenging range of notes, beyond the reach of some. Sometimes there’s that awful moment when it becomes apparent that the performer has lost his or her way in the lyrics. And what about non-traditional performances that may offend some, but delight others?

Republican State Sen. Vaneta Becker has proposed a potential $25 fine for anyone whose rendition at a school event deviates from what Becker calls the usual words and traditional melody, or as the Associated Press reports she said, “the way that we normally have it sung or heard through most of our state and our country.”

Rep. Becker says it’s not her intent to punish the inadvertent off-key notes, but rather to go after those who intentionally bring their own interpretation — or change of lyrics — to the song.

Apart from establishing the very questionable role of legislator as music dictator, and the difficulty of determining the difference between an accident, poor memorization and parody, there are several basic flaws to Becker’s proposal.

Let’s begin by saying that her respect for the national anthem is not an issue. The problems come in trying to legislate that strong feeling of respect within others, and to punish those who do not comply.

First, the First Amendment guarantees the right of Americans to sing from different songbooks, so to speak, without fear of government punishment.

Making light of lyrics or turning the words to a particular purpose may well offend some, but “offending some” is not a criterion we want government using to restrict our freedom of speech.

Speech we don’t like is countered best by more speech, not by trying to shut off, or fine, the potentially offending speaker.

And as a practical matter in an age of YouTube viral videos, trying to suppress a performance may just guarantee it as a instant, worldwide sensation.

Then there’s the problem with the “usual” and “traditional” requirements. Some decades ago, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar version most likely would have fallen outside those definitions. But for a Baby Boomer, a replay today likely evokes more nostalgia — even patriotic feelings — than counterculture protest.

Parody is both protected in law and best self-regulated in practice. Go too far and the court of public opinion steps in to limit the impact of speech and in some cases, the career of the performer. No need for legislative action or judicial parsing.

As to worrying about encouraging public respect for the national anthem: Any one of the hundreds of thousands of returning veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan seems more inspiring than yet another proposed state statute that steps on free speech while attempting to legislate patriotism.

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