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Flag Burning

Is it more important to protect the icons of our country, or to ensure the right
to extremely offensive expressions? The issue of flag burning asks America just
that question: Should America tolerate, or condemn? Flag burning does seem to be
the ultimate act of symbolic protest used to express dissension against the
American Government. There is simply no questioning the fact that flag burning
offends people, but the controversy of flag burning tests the dominion of the
First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment states very simply,
Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the
press.” (Harvin ) It is widely debatable whether or not the American flag
is an object that requires the refuge of legislation. History of the Flag The
American flag played no significant role in American life until the Civil War.

It was displayed only on federal government buildings, forts, and American ships
at sea. It would have been unthinkable to fly an American flag at a private home
or public school. It simply was not done. Only the outbreak of the Civil War
made the American Flag transform into an object of public adoration. The flag
suddenly started appearing everywhere from colleges, hotels, stores, to private
homes. But the flag’s growing popularity was not accompanied at first by any
sense that is should be regarded as a sacred object or vestige( Goldstein).

History of Flag Burning The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right to
desecrate an American flag. However, various legislatures have tried numerous
times to criminalize the act of flag burning. Despite their efforts, flag
burning is still legal, at least for the time being. Still, the legal future of
flag burning is very much in question. Although it does not deal specifically
with flag desecration, the 1931 Supreme Court case of Stromberg v. California
was the first to test the extent of the First Amendment as it applies to
displaying the flag. Stromberg was arrested, charged, and convicted for
displaying a red flag. The Supreme Court set the precedent and ruled that
because similar to flag burning, the flag is being used in an expressive manner
(Goldstein). The first epidemic of flag desecration in American history occurred
during the late Sixties and early Seventies. Americans were becoming more and
more disgusted with the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. This era is commonly known
for its radical political activism. Setting the American flag ablaze was a
common way for protesters to decry the Vietnam conflict (Mullins). Protesters
soon realized that flag burning was an extremely effective way to express many
of their anti-American views. The second Supreme Court case that dealt with
using the flag in an expressive manner occurred with the 1974 case of Spence v.

Washington. This case was very similar to the earlier case of Stromberg v.

California. The case involved a protester who was arrested and convicted for
displaying an American flag with an attached peace sign. Just the same as the
Stromberg case, the conviction was overturned and deemed unconstitutional
because the action was expressive (Goldstein). The earlier Spence and Stromberg
cases both deal with the expressive use of the American flag, but no flag
burning itself The first and most notable Supreme Court case to tackle the
controversy of flag burning itself was the case of Texas v. Johnson. In 1984,
Gregory Lee Johnson participated in a rally dubbed the ‘Republican War Chest
Tour,’ which protested U.S. foreign policy. The demonstration climaxed as
protesters chanted and Johnson doused the American flag with kerosene and set it
on fire (Harvin). This was perhaps the most famous flag ever burned in U.S.

history. Johnson was arrested and charged with violating the Texas statue 42.09
Desecration of a Venerated Object. The law states in part, “A person
commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly defaces.. . a state or
national flag.” Johnson was fined $2,000 and was sentenced to one year in
state prison (Goldstein). Johnson appealed the decision all the way to the U.S.

Supreme Court. Five years later, in 1989, the Supreme Court overturned the
conviction by the narrowest of margins, five to four. The ruling stated that
“free speech does not end at the spoken or written word.” (Goldstein).

After the controversial ruling in Texas v. Johnson, United States lawmakers
wasted little time in passing the Federal Flag Protection Act of 1989. The Flag
Protection Act was very similar to the earlier unconstitutional Texas statue.

The only difference was that the federal law applied specifically to the
American flag, and described a much broader range of offenses (Goldstein). The
Flag Protection Act met its first constitutional challenge very quickly. The
1990 Supreme Court case of United States v. Eichman brought the issue to the
forefront once again. The government’s main arguments in favor of the Flag
Protection Act was that it did not limit the act of flag desecration based
specifically on its expressive content, and that the government has an interest
in preserving the physical well-being of the flag. The Supreme Court did not
agree and ultimately found the Flag Protection Act unconstitutional, The court
disregarded the U.S. government’s argument and ruled nevertheless that the
underlying intent of the government was to suppress free speech (Goldstein). In
1990 Doris Lessin, a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, was arrested
after burning a flag and yelling insults at bystanders during an anti-America
demonstration. Violence subsequently followed and Lessin was charged with
aggravated disorderly conduct. She was later charged with a more severe felony,
inciting to violence, and ultimately was convicted. The fact Lessin was jailed
for flag burning points to a loophole in the current law. Currently, flag
desecration can be illegal under some circumstances (Cozic). Today, flag burning
which is communicative in nature is still constitutional. Because the Supreme
Court has gained a liberal seat since the Johnson and Eichman rulings, it does
not appear that the Supreme Court will change the constitutionality of flag
desecration any time soon. Throughout the 1990’s, Washington politicians have
tried repeatedly to circumvent the issue of constitutionality by pushing a
proposed flag desecration amendment to amend the constitution itself. Several
versions of the amendment have easily passed in the House of Representatives,
only to fail or stall in the Senate. An overwhelming majority of senators and
representatives have announced their support for the bill, however other issues
have pushed the proposal to the wayside. Amending the constitution is a
difficult and lengthy process, and over 99% of proposed amendments fail (Fullwood).

Currently, the proposed amendment was stalled in the Senate, and did not clear
the Senate in 1998. The issue of flag burning and desecration is one of the most
controversial tests of the right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has
repeatedly ruled in favor of the constitutionality of flag burning, but
politicians have tried endlessly to change that. One thing seems certain. The
only way that flag burning will become illegal is through an amendment to the
Constitution. To Burn The issue of flag burning has polarized American politics
for over a decade. There is little middle ground with this issue. Americans are
generally either for or against the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment.

Opponents of the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment are quite outspoken. The
opponents argue that proposal would be the first to set limitations on the First
Amendment. Furthermore, they argue that the entire thinking of the proposed
amendment is backwards because the proposal places more value in the icon of
freedom, than in freedom itself (Smolla 1989). Not to Burn It could reasonably
be predicted that the proposed amendment would divide Americans directly at
political party lines, this is not the case. The Republican Party proudly
sponsors the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment and it is no surprise that
almost every Republican in Congress has proclaimed their support for the
proposed amendment (Citizen’s Flag Alliance). The Republican Party has always
been synonymous with limited interpretation of the First Amendment and a push
for more laws in recent American politics. The more surprising reality is that
many moderate Democrats have crossed party lines and announced their support for
the proposed amendment (Citizen’s Flag Alliance). The main opposition to the
proposed amendment comes from the liberal Democrats and the Libertarians. And
where does the American public stand? Various polls indicate that 70%-80% are in
favor of the proposed amendment (Citizen’s Flag Alliance). However, when
informed as to the first Amendment implications of such an amendment, poll show
that American opinions are more swayed and split their opinions at nearly 50% (Fullwood).

The main argument for the Flag Desecration Amendment is that the American flag
is not just another piece of cloth (Citizen’s Flag Alliance). The flag is
proclaimed by supporters to be a venerated object worthy of legal protection.

Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Tommy Lasorda is one of the foremost
activists in favor of the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment. Lasorda testified
that the Senate can protect an honored symbol that ties every American together,
while preserving out 1st Amendment rights, and most supporters of the proposal,
disagree with the liberal decision of the Supreme Court that protect flag
burning as free speech (Lacy). Supporters of the proposed Flag Desecration
Amendment are also a widespread majority in the every facet of the U.S.

Forty-nine of the fifty states legislatures have officially urged congress to
pass the proposed amendment. About three of every four U.S. representatives
support the measure, and so do about two of every three U.S. Senators.

Supporters of the proposal are also four of every five U.S. citizens. Because
they form a widespread majority, the supporters believe that the people ‘s voice
should be heard and the proposed amendment should be ratified (Citizen’s Flag
Alliance). Flag burning has never been a significant tool for political change
in America (SmoIIa 1990). At its best, it has been an act used by a few radicals
to gain attention. At its worst it could be a major threat to the fabric of
America. As every flag is burned, so is the memory of every American who died in
its service. Supporters of the proposed amendment, who are the majority, don’
think that it’s much to ask of citizens not to bum a flag. After all, aren’t
there a thousand other ways to express ones views? Both sides of the debate feel
very strongly about their cause. That is just what makes America a free country.

Everyone has been allowed to express his or her opinion under the First
Amendment. Americans have always expressed their opinions, whether it’s by word
or by mouth, on television or in newspapers, on T-shirts or bumper stickers, or
even by burning the flag. My Conclusion What do countries like China, North
Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, and Cuba all have in common? If one answered that
all these countries are flagrant violators of human rights, that would be
correct. If one answered that all these countries have been models of oppressive
and totalitarian governments, that too, would be correct. What is lesser known
is that all these countries also have laws against flag burning (Cozic). If
American politicians have their way, add the United States of America to that
list Politicians don’t care that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the
constitutionality of flag burning, although it is nonverbal. The Supreme Court
has clearly ruled that flag desecration is a form of communicative speech. Free
speech has never ended with the spoken word. Free speech is very clearly
protected by the First Amendment (Rehnquist). The fact that the
constitutionality issue had already been decided seemed to anger the
power-hungry Washington bureaucrats. Shortly after the Supreme Court made it’s
first ruling in favor of flag burning, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act
into law. Much the same, the Flag Protection Act was almost immediately deemed
unconstitutional. But even that hasn’t stopped Congress almost a decade later.

The Flag Desecration Amendment has been quietly creeping its way through the
U.S. legislature unbeknownst to the majority of the American public. The
amendment has been led by the right-wing conservative, Orrin Hatch of Utah (Fullwood).

Hatch and other politicians are intent on stripping Americans of any rights they
still have left. These politicians seem hell-bent on scrapping the values that
have built the United States of America. They are intent of pulling a big, fat,
asterisk next to the First Amendment (Cozic). The clockwork of the Constitution
should not be toyed with for such an insignificant cause. Americans should
remember that governments do not have to take freedom away from citizens all at
once. Nazi Germany started very slowly taking away people’s freedom in the
thirties. Less than a decade later, political opposition was quashed with
legislation, intimidation, and violence. The ultimate results and the speed at
which rights are stripped may not be the same in America, but the trends may end
up being very similar. American lawmakers sometimes are very ignorant and have a
bad habit of imposing laws against actions that they personally dislike without
considering the underlying implication. Flag burning is undoubtedly a
contemptuous act against the country. The majority of Americans is at least
mildly patriotic and would probably be sickened to witness Old Glory so horribly
violated. Because this is the case lawmakers feel it is their moral duty to
intervene and criminalize the act. The logic behind the proposed Flag
Desecration Amendment is childish at best. Very simply, politicians have decided
that they don’t like a specific action, flag desecration, so it should be
illegal. Modern flag burnings are relatively rare in America (Cozic). The
revolutionary energy that fueled the flag burning children of the Sixties has
nearly disappeared. Modern flag burners are a dying breed. They are no longer
associated with the politically acceptable message of peace that swept the
nation during the Vietnam conflict. Many flag burners of the 1990’s represent
radical political movements, revolutionary factions, or organizations that lie
miles to the left or right of conventional bipartisan politics. The simple fact
is that many of these flag burners make no secret of the fact that they are
anti-American. Americans can label them however they like, but should not
overlook the truth. The truth is that flag burners are minority in America.

Minorities are very easy to persecute. Persecution would be the immediate result
of the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment. It is necessary to persecute flag
burners because they possess unpopular ideas and notions? No matter how
revolutionary, anti-American, or unpopular the message behind flag burning is
that; Americans should accept, or at least tolerate the expression of
minorities. In the past, America has restricted the right of almost every group
of minorities. Today, the minorities have different faces, but the underlying
issues are the same. America is a country which prides itself on instilling
equal respect for everyone, minorities included. There is not a need for a
modernized form of legalized persecution called the Flag Desecration Amendment.

Also, overlooked is the obvious reality that flag desecration is entirely a
victimless crime. A piece of private property is burned. So what? Is it really
necessary to lock these people away? Are they a threat to anyone’s safety? Does
America require another burden on the prison system? Of course not! The proposed
Flag Desecration Amendment is just a tool used to seek a patriot’s revenge
against heretic. There is absolutely no justifiable need. There are certain
freedoms that a free society does not need to impose upon. Countries with as
much love for liberty as America should wake up and place its ideals above a
mere idol of a flag. Liberty, justice, and the true meaning of the First
Amendment will all be lost if politicians have their way. The only things to be
gained with the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment are levels of fear and
fascism imposed by American lawmakers. Yes, that’s right. Fascism. By
definition, a fascist law is one that pushes patriotism to an extreme or violent
extent. The proposed Flag Desecration Amendment doesn’t necessarily push
patriotism to a violent extent, but is does force patriotism to an extreme. The
Proposed Flag Desecration Amendment would use government as a tool to turn the
American flag, a perennial symbol of patriotism, into an untouchable holy
object. This is fascism. Ultimately a flag is a simple piece of cloth with many
colors and designs imprinted on it; many Americans have clearly invested this
fabric with highly emotionally charged values. Although, flag burning is hardly
likely to threaten the flag’s symbolic value, forbidding flag burning will
surely diminish the flag’s principles.