Just in time for Independence Day, the Senate has again rejected a Constitutional amendment to prohibit desecration of the United States flag. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the amendment failed by only one vote.
When we recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag, we aren’t really stating our dedication to the flag, but to the country of which it is a symbol. The flag in itself is just a construction of red, white, and blue fabric. What we honor when we salute the flag is the pride, the history, and the freedom that it represents.
I feel privileged to live in the United States. I am deeply proud of this country and its history. I absolutely believe that each of us has a responsibility to protect our way of life and our ideals.
One of the most important of those ideals—one we should never take for granted—is freedom of speech. I can write letters to the editor expressing completely outrageous opinions, and the only consequence is likely to be other people writing equally outrageous letters back. I can rant in a public place about Congress or the President or the mayor, and nobody is going to burst through the door and haul me off to jail.
And, if I feel it necessary in order to make my voice heard, I can plant myself in a visible public spot and set a flag on fire. Among the freedoms our flag symbolizes is the freedom to burn one. The Supreme Court has ruled more than once that burning an American flag is Constitutionally protected free speech. That is a freedom we need to preserve.
Freedom of speech is not limited to speech that the majority agrees with. It is not limited to courteous, dignified, or sensible discourse. Accepting and living that freedom means tolerating even expressions—such as burning a flag—that we may find repulsive or outrageous.
The Flag Code sets out the appropriate way to treat the flag that represents our country. It specifies that the flag should never be used for any advertising purpose or printed on anything meant to be used and disposed of. It also states that the flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, fireman, policeman and members of patriotic organizations.
Yet, this time of year, it is routine to see flags in ads for Independence Day sales. Tee-shirts, hats, and even swim suits have flag patterns. If you want to go on a Fourth of July picnic, you can buy paper plates and napkins with flags printed on them.
Which person is the true patriot—one who uses the flag in a newspaper ad? One who wears a bikini printed with the flag? One who wipes the ketchup off his chin with a flag-printed napkin? Or one who burns a flag in heartfelt protest?
The only real danger to our flag comes from those who would trivialize it in the name of patriotism. It is a superficial patriot who believes preserving a flag is more important than preserving the liberty it represents. Bully for the Senators who took their patriotism seriously enough to stand against a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning. Such a law would be a long and dangerous first step toward restricting one of this nation’s most fundamental liberties.