View Full Version : Fireproofing the flag

07-08-05, 08:16 AM
Rosen: Fireproofing the flag
July 8, 2005

Linda Grist Cunningham is the executive editor of the Rockford (Illinois) Register Star, a Gannett newspaper owned by the publishers of USA Today. She's angry with members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats, who voted in favor of House Resolution 10, which reads as follows: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit physical desecration of the flag of the United States." Cunningham pledged that, "If the U.S. Senate follows its silly siblings in the House of Representatives and votes for a ban on burning the American flag, I'm going to burn one."

That's her prerogative without risk of prosecution, for now. But if HR 10 is approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate and ultimately ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures, flag burning could be illegal again. In the meantime, her employer would be free to fire her for a crass and senseless act, or the paper's readers and advertisers could choose to take their business elsewhere.

But why would Cunningham burn the flag? What might she be rationally protesting? The democratic process? The fact that her viewpoint was outvoted by 286 members of the U.S. House, while only 130 voted her way? The prescribed procedure for amending the Constitution? As she sees it, "Just the idea that Congress has nothing better to do than spend time on this nutty issue makes me want to burn one." Congress considers and votes for lots of things I don't like, but I don't take my frustration out on the flag.

"I am assuming," declares Cunningham, "that if we ban burning, we'll also ban purses that look like flags, flags painted on cars, and flags tattooed on butts?" Now, it's becoming clear. Cunningham likes to make paranoid assumptions. I assume no such things. More likely, prosecutions for flag-burning would take place only under extreme circumstances when the intent of the desecrater would be blatant and clear. That was the case with Gregory "Joey" Johnson, a self-proclaimed communist revolutionary with an animus for America, who was convicted of flag desecration in Texas in the late 1980s. For 200 years before that, Congress and the states had the authority to make flag desecration an illegal act. The nation somehow survived that Dark Age.

Then, in 1989, reviewing the Johnson case, a narrow 5-4 Supreme Court majority suddenly declared such legislation unconstitutional.

Free speech has always had limitations for things like libel, national security, incitement to riot, fighting words, child pornography, etc. The First Amendment would, once again, survive laws outlawing flag desecration. Moreover, speech and physical expression are not synonymous. For example, mounting a soapbox in the park and advocating public nudity is legal; taking your clothes off during your speech isn't. The First Amendment might protect your verbalized hatred of America. It doesn't have to tolerate your burning of the flag.

I've heard assorted liberals and pacifists claim that American soldiers have fought and died for the right of others to burn our flag. Nonsense. Tell that to most vets and they'll laugh in your face. Burt Pines of the Heritage Foundation has spoken eloquently of the symbolism of the American flag:

"It is only the flag that is entitled to a salute; only the flag to which men doff their hats and all citizens place their hands across their hearts. It is to the flag - not the president, the Congress, the Supreme Court, or even the Constitution - that Americans pledge their allegiance. It is the survival of the flag, of its broad stripes and bright stars, that is celebrated in the national anthem.

"It is the stirring image of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima that more than anything else has come to depict America's victory in war. It is the flag that flutters over countless graves of American soldiers, the flag that drapes their coffins, the flag that is lowered to half-mast when great citizens die, the flag that is affixed to foreign street posts when the president travels abroad. It is the sight of the flag that makes American hearts beat faster and chills their spines."

Can our traditionally tolerant nation also tolerate those who hate it? Sure. Can we tolerate the act of flag burning? Yes. Must we? No. Why? Because this act of desecrating a national symbol we cherish so deeply offends us that we simply won't permit it. This is our right as a society. And we can reclaim it from the errant opinion of five Supreme Court justices.

Mike Rosen's radio show airs daily from 9 a.m. to noon on 850 KOA.