First Amendment and flag burning

I am a huge supporter of the First Amendment, but I understand why some people are very upset about protesters who burn the flag. Today's article will explain why we can't make it illegal to burn the flag.

Clearly, our country believes in, and has a history of supporting, free speech. Constitutionally protected speech has limits (yelling fire in a crowded theatre) and does not prevent facing negative repercussions short of criminal sanctions. For example, employees have a right to shout objections to what their employer might be doing, but the company would be within their rights to fire such an employee. Free speech means the government cannot take legal or police action against speaking, but that doesn't stop some private actions.

Speech has been broadened beyond the act of literally talking or printing a newspaper to include all forms of communication which were never conceived of by our forefathers. So this includes other media like TV, radio, and the Internet, and includes other forms of expressions like signs or actions, such as burning a flag in protest.

There have been plenty of things said that have been offensive and which are clearly protected. So when the KKK decides to march, we must allow them to do so, even though nobody in their right mind supports such an organization or their message.

Perhaps the only more offensive march that I can think of would be Nazis marching into a Jewish neighborhood. I would defend their right to do so, including displaying the most hateful literature one can imagine, if they are so inclined. It wouldn't matter whether there was a street on which holocaust survivors all lived, and they were all either afraid or incited to violence. The job of the police would be to anticipate such an outcome and protect the marchers and their ability to walk on public streets.

If a member of such a group wanted to fly the swastica in their front yard, that would be very offensive but perfectly legal. And I would hope that all Americans who thought about this issue would agree.

Because once the government starts deciding which messages are acceptable and which are forbidden, while we would achieve some protection against most offensive speech, we would clearly lose a central tenet of our Republic which would be far worse in the long run than hurt feelings, no matter how painful.

In my mind, the right for a protester to burn the U.S. flag clearly falls under this same protection of free speech. The flag-burner must be pretty upset with the country and he believes that the best way to display his feelings is by doing something so offensive to others that everyone would recognize his anger. Allowing this speech gives an outlet to his aggression which is better than inciting him to violence in the alternative.

Under our system, you need to convince some majority, at some point in time, to gain political power. A single protester with no followers cannot take over the government. Anyone he tries to convince to join him in a violent revolution will likely urge him to try the ballot box first, and only go further if he is denied those rights. So long as the Nazis in our midst can say what they want and run for any office, we have a safety valve built in which ensures our stability and the support of everyone, even when their opinions are diametrically opposed.

Now some may argue that the flag is special. Some will cite the fact that our military uses the flag as a symbol, or that our students do a daily pledge of allegiance. But the flag is an abstraction made visual. What we are pledging to support and obey is the Constitution.

And now, let me prove that to you.

Let's say we had a law against burning the flag, and all Americans got behind it because it is so offensive to see people burn the flag in protest.

I could go out tomorrow, go to town center, and burn the flag. Once arrested, I would demand proof. The flag has been burned to ashes, yet I am being arrested for burning it. Prove that I burned the flag.

So an officer would produce testimony that he saw me burn it. He would also produce a photo he took, showing me holding the flag right before I lit the match. Sounds like pretty convincing evidence, doesn't it?

I will quickly point out, however, that the flag I burned was not the flag of the United States, because the U.S. has 50 states represented by 50 stars, and my flag only had 49. I ordered the version of the flag just before our present one. (Maybe that is a 48-star flag, who knows.) So clearly the charges must be dropped because everyone knows that the U.S. flag has 50 stars.

Are we going to outlaw burning flags that look similar to the U.S. flag as well? Good luck with that.

I think the flag of Puerto Rico has just one star but similar colors. Would that flag be illegal to burn? How about a t-shirt with a flag on it? How about a t-shirt with red and white bars, say 13 of them?

Under the flag-burning prohibition, we could make it illegal to, for example, paint the flag on one's cheek during a sporting event, or put the image of the flag on a cake in a celebration on July 4th, or make it illegal to reproduce "flag patches" that are often found on law-enforcement uniforms. Any of these actions could be seen as disrespectful by some, or the flag-image could be harmed and thus damaged and thus an affront to someone who reveres the flag. Can you imagine going to an Independence Day celebration and getting arrested for eating the flag?

So in conclusion, we should celebrate our great country and our freedom of expression laws and allow our citizens to do what they wish when they want to exercise their First-Amendment rights. That's what makes America great.

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