June 29, 1999

Flag burning doesn't threaten our freedoms

By Steve Scroggins


As we recognize the birthday of our nation, it's appropriate to reflect on the freedoms that make this nation the greatest in history. Many symbols represent the United States but none more universally than our flag.

Most of us have pledged allegiance to that flag and many of us continue to do so on a regular basis. And yet there are a few among us who feel compelled to desecrate the flag by burning it or otherwise showing disrespect. Most Americans find that offensive at best, so once again, there's a movement afoot in the US Congress to amend the Constitution to ban desecration of the US flag. Let's review.

Symbols are very subjective. Every person develops a unique catalog of symbols and meanings based on his or her life experience. What means one thing to me may mean something entirely different to others.

For example, consider the Confederate flag and the Georgia state flag. I wrote a column on it some years ago (Feb. 14, 1997) that evoked strong responses. I continue to get e-mail from the Internet posting of that column. Some consider the Confederate flag a symbol of hatred. I disagree and apparently so do the majority of Georgians who oppose changing the state flag.

Just as opinions vary on the Confederate symbol's meaning, the same can be said about the US flag and the republic for which it stands. The First Amendment guarantees that we are free to express our differing opinions on what is right and what is wrong with our republic.

Let's get back to the proposed flag amendment.

Flag burning offends most Americans. We just don't like it and never will. But we cannot compel citizens to have allegiance and patriotism. Just as God gives us free will to choose love over hate, good over evil and right over wrong, we must allow fellow citizens to choose to respect the flag, to choose to stand for the National Anthem and choose to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and mean it. Compulsory allegiance is not allegiance at all.

We pledge allegiance to a flag, but more importantly I think, we pledge our allegiance to THE REPUBLIC FOR WHICH IT STANDS. It's the republic and its ideals of LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL that's most important.

Among those ideals is the rule of law and the right of individuals to free speech, especially political speech and speech critical of our government. I cannot fully understand what motivates those who burn our flag, but they obviously intend to make a statement about our government, which makes it political speech, and as such, it is and should be protected under the Constitution. Pornography, nude dancing and similar expressions don't qualify as political speech in my book and calling them protected free speech is really a stretch. But that's another column.

The Framers knew that a government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed could and must endure the criticisms of its citizens whether those criticisms are outrageous or legitimate. Citizens without the right to criticize the government and petition for a redress of grievances will soon forfeit their other liberties and self-government would soon mutate into government by tyrants.

Let's do all we can to discourage desecration and encourage appropriate respect for the US flag, but we don't need a constitutional amendment to do that. It's the Republic for which it stands that's important and that can't be destroyed by a few jerks burning a piece of cloth. The burning of flags is not a threat to our freedoms or our way of life----but limiting political speech and freedom of speech is.


Copyright 1999 Steve Scroggins - All rights reserved.

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