is to narrow Americans’ constitutional freedoms by amending the first amendment to ban unpopular symbolic speech. It’s disturbing to see the Senate within a few votes of following the House in passing the abysmal “Flag Burning Amendment.” And it’s disappointing to see so many Democrats (Bob Menendez, Sherrod Brown, and Loretta Sanchez among them) joining the pandering parade.
As I said in this piece (also here), crimminalizing flag-burning is a desecration of the flag and of our freedoms. As Hendrik Hertzberg once observed, it’s impossible to burn the flag, though some may choose to burn a flag or two. Trampling the freedoms for which that flag stands, however, is all too feasible.
That’s exactly how we should recognize the criminalization of a symbol based on offense at its content. After all, if the burning of a flag can be rendered illegal on grounds of outrage at the message it signifies, why not images of burning flags? Why not incitement to burn flags? Why not Dick Durbin’s insistence that torture is more befiting a despotic regime than the United States of America? There was a moment in this country’s history before the First Amendment when representatives on the floor of Congress had a constitutional right to free speech unavailable to regular Americans. It would be shameful for us ever to enter a moment after the unamended First Amendment in which the same is the case.
A Flag-Burning Amendment would still be outrageous if flag-burning was an everyday occurence in this country. But it’s worth noting that it isn’t. Not only was the pro-amendment Citizens Flag Alliance only able to document four incidents this year (three of them last month, while the Amendment was under debate and in the news), every single one involved people burning other people’s flags. However one ranks the wrongness of setting the local Public Library’s flag on fire relative to, say, denying healthcare to returning veterans, it’s already illegal.
What’s at issue is this: Living in a society with a robust Bill of Rights means that in some rare instance, some American may exercise the freedom granted under our flag to burn a flag in hopes of dramatizing a divide between a vision for this country and its present reality. The discomfort that’s inspired by a burning flag, or a confederate flag, is a small price to pay for liberty.