How to Honor the Flag

IT appears that the United States is about to go through another patriotic spasm over the question of flag burning. This would be merely regrettable, but for the danger that it could wreak true harm on the US Constitution. On Monday the Supreme Court handed down its second flag-burning decision in a year. Last year it struck down a Texas law that prohibited desecration of the American flag in a manner offensive to others. Because the prohibition infringed on a form of communication, the court said it violated the First Amendment.

Congress tried to correct the constitutional defect with a law banning all flag desecrations (except destruction of worn or soiled flags), whether or not a message is intended. But the high court viewed this as a ``fig leaf'' and, by the same 5-4 vote, overturned the statute.

Those who want to punish flag burners now plan to push for an amendment to the Constitution.

As we've said before, we hold no truck with burning or otherwise defiling the American flag. We revere Old Glory as the symbol of the freedom and equality that America ideally stands for.

But we also deeply value tolerance as an American virtue, including tolerance of views we deplore. As journalists, moreover, we look askance at any attempt to prune back the First Amendment, however benign the purpose may seem.

It's not as if there's been an epidemic of flag burning. It's even less true that a few incidents of desecration have weakened most Americans' loyalty to the nation's foremost symbol (quite the contrary, in fact). The best way to honor the flag is to make clear that the majestic freedoms it represents belong to all citizens, even those who disdain the flag.

Yet the president and the Republican leaders in Congress seem bent on whipping up a frenzy of self-righteous patriotic fervor behind a proposed constitutional amendment banning flag desecration. This is the worst kind of Know-Nothing, sound-bite politics. Particularly offensive are remarks by some GOP strategists that flag-burning is a truly defining issue that makes starkly clear the two parties' respective support of American values - as though adherence to the Bill of Rights were somehow incompatible with love of country.

That's the real issue: Are this president and this Congress going to be the first in the nation's history to spearhead an amendment to the Bill of Rights, that great, noble, and ennobling document that is the world's most comprehensive defense of individual liberty? Are they truly willing to dilute freedom of speech, just to pounce on a tiny handful of silly attention seekers?

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