Fold Up the Flag Amendment Or Rights Will Fly at Half-Mast

THE Congress is about to put an asterisk on the First Amendment. I am talking about the constitutional amendment to "protect" the American flag from the kind of free expression that this country was founded on.

It is more commonly called the flag-desecration amendment, and it protects nothing, not the flag, not values, and certainly not free speech.

It does represent a test of will that has Congress on the spot with The American Legion, Women's Army Corps, Navy League, and other well-meaning veterans and fraternal organizations.

The House in June overwhelmingly passed the amendment. The Senate showdown could come soon. Sixty-seven Senate votes are needed to send it to the states for ratification. Protect-the-flag partisans are flooding lawmakers with tens of thousands of telegrams.

If it is approved, the essence of free political speech will drift for the first time from the First Amendment mooring that gives every citizen a constitutional right to challenge, even cast aspersions on, the icons of government.

The federal government and the 50 states will have wide latitude in determining what desecrates the flag. Given the emotions over the issue, flag-themed soda cans, bumper stickers, or the shirt on your back could be targets of local harassment. Already, there's a town in Minnesota that wants to keep car dealers from flying more than four US flags on their lots.

Yes, this is a Boston Tea Party type of issue even if we don't think of it that way. And, yes, few institutions, the press included, seem terribly bothered by it at all.

The principal reason for apathy: The issue has been miscast as a patriotic cause to safeguard the flag against the scruffy likes of Gregory Lee Johnson, and never mind our revered right to free speech.

It is easy to dislike Gregory Lee Johnson. He's the radical protester who doused the American flag with kerosene, then put a match to it in front of Dallas City Hall during the 1984 Republican National Convention.

He was arrested and convicted and no one cared. Except the US Supreme Court, which ruled in 1989 that the flag-protection law that was used to prosecute Mr. Johnson violated his constitutional right to free expression.

"It was enough to make any American's blood boil," says William M. Detweiler, immediate past national commander of The American Legion. "We cannot allow our proud flag - and our proud nation - to be ripped apart, piece by piece."

Most Americans, myself among them, hate what Johnson did to the flag. From the cradle, we are taught to respect it as a symbol of our unprecedented form of democracy. We grow up saluting it as school children, little leaguers, girl scouts, soldiers, proud citizens.

Beyond that, many of us have family members who died fighting for the exceptional freedom the flag represents. We don't want it spit at, trampled under foot, burned in protest, or in any way defaced.

Yet it is because of that special freedom - including the right to extreme political views - that the Senate should reject the flag amendment.

No nation has a more important history of tolerating dissent, even conduct we have come to hate, than the United States. The Founding Fathers wanted it that way. They experienced the heavy hand of the British Crown, and saw the right of protest as a vital bulwark against injustice and tyranny. It's what sets America apart from nations that quash citizen protest - and especially flag-burning - nations such as China, North Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Cuba.

In other words, any effort to limit liberty is ultimately directed at you. The flag amendment - and the laws that would follow - probably would not prevent extremists from doing violence to the flag. The Gregory Lee Johnsons of this world crave the attention; getting arrested is part of the act.

Furthermore, there aren't a lot of lunkheads like Gregory Lee Johnson. Only four cases of flag burning were reported last year. And those were prosecuted, with the full authority of existing law and the First Amendment.

How can this be, given the Supreme Court's flag ruling?

Simple. All those cases were prosecuted under other laws prohibiting theft, vandalism, or inciting riots.

So, to solve a problem that does not exist (when was the last time you saw someone burning a flag?), the proponents of this amendment would chip away at the fundamental freedoms guaranteed to all Americans.

And in case that sounds like a self-interested argument from a First Amendment fundamentalist, listen to Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg in the war. "The community's revulsion at those who burn a flag," Senator Kerrey said, "is all that we need. It has contained the problem without the government getting involved."

Indeed, in their effort to protect the flag, the advocates of this amendment do far greater damage to the principles of liberty for which the flag stands. We need not wrap ourselves in the flag to protect it.

We do need, however, to stand up for the freedom that Old Glory represents and urge the US Senate to turn down the flag amendment.

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