Soap Box:  Should the Constitution be Amended to Ban Flag Burning?

June 28, 2006

A measure that would seek to ban the desecration of the American Flag by amending the Constitution failed by one vote on June 27, 2006. First of all, the ONLY reason there is such a measure before the Senate to be voted on is because of election year partisan politics. I'm not aware of any rampant flag burning problems in this country that need to be currently addressed. We have much bigger problems to deal with such as rising fuel costs, deficit spending, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, just to name a few. There is no doubt that the Republicans proposed this amendment because they have been taking popularity hits lately and they want to entice the party's conservative base to go to the polls this coming November.

With that being said, the issue of flag desecration, usually in the form of burning, does rear its head every now and then. It's contentious enough that we should give it some thought and debate. So, should we amend the Constitution to protect the flag? Well, if you really want to protect the flag, that's the only way to do it. While some say we can do the same with a federal law, the Supreme Court can overturn laws as unconstitutional. They've already done so with state laws that ban flag desecration. I have no problem with amending the Constitution for any reason, as long as it's needed. It's a living document that needs to change as our country's needs change. The real issue or question is should flag desecration be banned?

The opponents of such a ban cite flag burning as a form of free speech, which is protected under the First Amendment. Let's face it, when people are burning flags, it's overwhelmingly (if not always) as a form of political protest. Granted, to most Americans it's a very unpopular form of free speech, but no one ever said you had to like it. And that's what the First Amendment is all about. It's not about saying what's popular or has the most support. It's about giving a voice to those who go against the majority or the established government. It's about letting all citizens be heard, regardless of their message. But does flag burning go too far?

Proponents of a ban say it does. They equate flag burning as "fighting words" or "slander". While people certainly have free speech rights, if you slander someone you may put yourself in legal jeopardy. In other words, you can't say anything you like just because we have a First Amendment right. Similarly, yelling "fire" in a crowded theater in an attempt to induce panic is not allowed. Ban proponents claim that flag burning as a form of expression has no "social value". They claim it is "spiteful" or "vengeful", "designed to hurt" and "not designed to persuade". Are these statements true? And even if they are, should they be the reason to amend the Constitution in order to ban flag desecration?

I have thought long and hard on this issue. I see valid points from both sides. I think it's time for me to firmly take a stand on whether or not I think burning the flag should be against the law and protected by the Constitution.

I am a very strong patriot at heart. I get tears in my eyes when I hear or sing the national anthem. I want the United States to be the most powerful country in the world and be victorious in all its endeavors. I love the American flag and what it stands for. I treat it with the utmost respect. I fly it from my house and my boat. And it angers me to see someone not treat it with respect. I have an instant dislike when I see someone desecrate the flag, whether it be by burning it, or trampling it on the ground. It disgusts me, with a gnawing at the pit of my stomach, to see someone treat our nation's symbol with such callous disregard and disrespect. It stirs bad emotions within me, especially if I realize they are doing it just to get a response at their outrageous actions. Do I think we should have laws against desecrating the flag? Do I think we should amend the Constitution to ban the desecration of the American flag, the very symbol of our great nation, the United States of America? My answer is NO….I do not. I think flag burning should be a form of protected free speech.

Whether or not free speech is popular, or liked, is not a measure of whether or not that speech should be allowed. Again, no one said we had to like it. But regardless of how disgusted it makes me feel to see someone desecrate the flag, it most certainly is a form of free expression. People do it to protest our government's actions. People do it to protest our politician's actions. People might even do it just to see our reaction. Nonetheless, it should be form of protected free speech. Whether or not is has "social value" is subjective. The government spends plenty of money on things I deem as having no social value. And yes, it can be "spiteful" or "vengeful", but that is irrelevant. Other forms of free speech can illicit the same reaction. And it can certainly be "designed to hurt". But again, that's irrelevant to the issue of whether or not it's protected free speech. And again, the First Amendment doesn't guarantee you'll like free speech or that it won't sting a bit. It guarantees that no matter how popular or unpopular, you still have the right to express it. I sometimes fly a Confederate battle flag from the back of my boat. I don't do it because I hate black people or agree with the philosophy of the Ku Klux Klan. I do it because for years the Confederate flag was plainly a symbol of the South. It could be found on businesses and in advertisement. Dixie Crystals sugar proudly displayed it on the front of their five pound bag of sugar. Only in recent years have people decided that it was offensive. But I still fly my flag, regardless of who may be offended by it. To me it represents southern hospitality and my pride in being a southerner. I fly it because I identify with growing up in the south and the old southern values. And I'm allowed to fly it, despite some peoples opposition, because it's a form of protected free speech.

So I ask that people please not burn the American flag. I ask people such as the musical performer named Kid Rock to please not rip a hole in the flag and wear it as a shirt on stage while you perform. I ask people to please not trample my nation's symbol upon the ground. Please treat it with respect and dignity because it represents what I think is the greatest nation on Earth. But if you do decide to desecrate the American flag as a form of protest or speech, while I may not agree with it, I will fight for your right to do so because it most certainly is a form of free speech that is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Although the current measure that was before the senate was only an attempt by the Republicans to secure votes in the upcoming elections, anytime anyone proposes a change in the Constitution to LIMIT the rights of American citizens, a warning alarm should sound. Freedom and liberty is what America is all about.

Jeff Polston

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