Denial of rights

I wrote this letter not only in response to Michael Blazier’s letter “Don’t burn flag”, but to all Americans who feel the flag of the U.S. should not be desecrated simply because it is a symbol of nationhood, even though this desecration is an avenue of expression in a political protest.

At the outset, I want to indicate that support for the right to commit the act and support for the act are not the same. I have been confronted with numerous reasons why one should not burn the flag; those reasons, however understandable, do not justify punishing someone who has the RIGHT to commit the act.

The second point I want to make is that if protections of political expression do not include offensive expression (such as the desecration of our most cherished symbols), then only ineffectual speech that is incapable of producing any results will be protected, and that would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights.

This brings me to an interesting observation; that being, what constitutes desecration? Although I grant that burning the flag is desecration, is spitting on the flag a form of desecration? How about folding the flag incorrectly, hanging a flag upside down, and the best example yet—President Bush wrapping his body in the flag?

The adversaries of flag burning argue for prohibiting desecration because the flag is a symbol of what our country stands for. The Constitution also is a symbol of what this country stands for, yet no legislation exists that makes it a criminal offense to burn a copy of the constitution. Why not? Mainly because it is not reasonable to enact such legislation. The same principle applies to the flag.

While the flag may be seen as a symbol of our nation, in actuality it is simply a piece of cloth. Thus, when soldiers fought in war, they did not fight for the flag, but for the values under the flag. If you truly do uphold the values represented by the flag then you must endorse the First Amendment. And embodied in the First Amendment is the freedom of expression and the right to dissent.

As Justice William J. Brennan, who delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court in Texas vs. Johnson (1989) forcefully points out, “If there is any bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

In a 1969 flag case, Street vs. New York, the United States Supreme Court concluded that, “The constitutionaly guaranteed ‘freedom to be intellectually…diverse or even contrary,’ and the ‘right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order,’ encompass the freedom to express publicly one’s opinions about our flag, including those opinions which are defiant or contemptuous.”

So Mr. Blazier, when you state that we should read the story behind the famous picture of six men raising an American flag over Mt. Suribachi on Feb. 24, 1945, and then tell you it is all right to burn our flag, my reply to you is yes. I do know the story quite well, and although I do not support the act itself, I strongly support the RIGHT to burn the flag as a means of political protest.

David J. Kalinowski


Political science/public law