Flagging Free Speech
June 23, 2005
The House was at it again on June 22, passing a resolution, by more than a two-thirds margin, in favor of a constitutional amendment that would make desecrating the flag a crime.
This time it may even pass by such a margin in the Senate, which is more hard-core Republican than in the previous four times the House has pulled this stunt since 1989.
And, according to The New York Times, “all 50 states have already passed resolutions calling for prohibitions on debasement of the flag.”
So if the Senate clears it, we'd be a less free country.
The Supreme Court has already ruled, and correctly so, that flag burning is a form of protected speech.
But this effort to amend the Constitution would prohibit such speech.
And while burning the flag is not the best way to convince our fellow citizens that specific policies of our government are immoral or illegal or reprehensible, why shouldn't people be able to demonstrate their views this way?
No one is going to get hurt if I buy a flag and burn it in my yard or at a protest.
It is my right to express my views about this country this way.
Yes, it's a crude form of speech, and it antagonizes others, but part of being free is allowing, even valuing, crude and antagonistic speech.
This proposed amendment could douse more speech than just flag-burning, however.
The resolution the House passed reads: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
But how do you define "physical desecration"?
Are you desecrating the flag when you fly it upside down as a distress symbol?
Are you desecrating it when you draw red drops symbolizing blood that drip from the red stripes?
Are you desecrating it when you design a T-shirt or poster that superimposes the words "Sit. Stay. Fetch. Heel. Roll Over. Play Dead. Kill." on the stripes, as the former art director of The Progressive, Patrick Flynn, did so powerfully?
Would that be verboten, too?
Or what about all the low uses of the flag that Madison Avenue is so fond of?
One person's sales gimmick is another person's desecration.
But I'm sure the government wouldn't go after Madison Avenue. It would go after dissidents, who express opposition to official policy.
It would go after political speech, and that should be the most protected kind of speech in this country.
But it's endangered now because our legislators are trying to turn the flag into a golden calf, and patriotism into the state religion.