The most recent U.S. flag desecration amendment failed to pass in the United States Senate by one vote. It’s the fifth time such a measure has failed in the Senate since 1990. The House of Representatives has approved an amendment seven times in that period.
The Senate's 66-34 vote did not strictly follow partisan lines with Republicans “for” and Democrats “against,” but it was close. Only 14 Democrats voted for the amendment while 3 Republicans voted against it. But this issue is about much more than partisanship.
Flag desecration is an emotional issue because it is by definition a patriotic one. People tend to measure one another’s patriotism based upon how he or she views flag desecration laws. It’s a game of “More patriotic than thou.”
On the one hand, “desecration” is difficult to define. If the amendment passed, would I have to give up my U.S. flag golf club headcover? Is my headcover desecration or, as I intend, is it a patriotic expression? If the amendment passed would we need to rid our house of flag stickers, flag colored jewelry, flag decorated clothing? Or is this not desecration but more patriotism? If burning a flag is desecration, than why are we instructed to burn flags when the material wears out?
On the other hand, while “desecration” may be difficult to define, everyone knows it when we see it. A person burning a flag in violent protest of the American nation or its policies is certainly recognizably different from a person burning a flag to dispose of it.
Still, one could argue that one person’s desecration is another person’s patriotic expression, however reprehensible some of us may find this idea or its enactment. People burn or otherwise destroy U.S. flags (and other flags) because they want to say something. They may be patriotic, just differently so.
I recognize that people who oppose flag desecration laws or amendments may be as patriotic as I am. They’re not opposed to such laws because they want to desecrate the flag. They oppose such laws because they want to protect freedom of expression and because they don’t know how these laws will be enforced in practice. I agree with their concern for how the law is written. The law must be clear so that enforcement can be reasonably applied. What we don’t want is a flag version of Prohibition, something that turns out to necessitate an embarrassing repeal.
Still, with all that, I favor flag desecration laws as long as they are properly written, though I’m not sure a constitutional amendment is necessary. Congressmen have proposed a constitutional amendment because the United States Supreme Court in recent years has struck down several state laws against flag desecration. In response some 50 states have approved non-binding resolutions supporting a constitutional amendment.
I do not think flag desecration laws, if properly focused, are a violation of freedom of speech. The Stars and Stripes, when presented as a flag, is a symbol of American ideals. In this way it is a monument no different from any other public depiction of our values. It therefore could or should be protected from harm just like the Statue of Liberty or the monuments in Washington, D.C. I see no inconsistency in this.
Protecting the flag is a way of vesting it with even greater symbolism. It’s important. When Red, White, and Blue material is arranged with stars and stripes, it’s not just a piece of material anymore. It’s us. It’s what we believe, and it’s what people have died to protect. So protecting this one symbolic presentation does not seem unreasonable to me.
I’m not arguing that the United States flag is a sacred object, nor am I suggesting that flag desecration laws mean that American policy should be beyond question or protest. I’m simply saying that there are many ways to express disagreement and even protest and protecting the U.S. flag doesn’t really limit this expression. The U.S. flag is unique and therefore should be treated uniquely.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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