Have you seen any American flags burned recently? Not likely. No one else has either.
But that isn’t stopping some members of Congress from exaggerating the threat. The danger is so dire, they say, that the Constitution must be amended to protect Old Glory. An amendment to ban flag desecration, which is scheduled for a vote in the U.S. Senate in two weeks, claims to respect the flag by criminalizing its desecration. But the right way to respect the flag is by upholding the values it represents: Those of democracy and freedom.
The temptation for politicians to engage in demagoguery in the name of patriotism is a Washington ritual as sure as the arrival of Flag Day today. But this is a phony crisis, and the supposed remedy is pure poison. Congress would, for the first time in 214 years, tamper with the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the cornerstone of American democracy.
And for what? As of Monday, even the leading organization seeking this legislation lists only one flag-burning incident this year. That was a middle-of-the-night act of petty vandalism outside a library in Topeka, with no apparent witnesses. Suspects can be prosecuted for destruction of public property without touching the Constitution.
With patriotic instincts heightened by the threat of terrorism and Americans fighting and dying abroad, insults to the flag are bound to provoke anger. But even if such incidents were more common, amending the Constitution would be a dangerous idea, repudiating the lessons of American history.
The Founding Fathers, fresh from oppression and revolution, realized that for their fledgling democracy to succeed, it would need safety valves to release political pressure in times of strife. First among those was the freedom to speak freely and criticize the government without fear.
Wisely, they did not entrust that freedom to legislators who, they knew, would blow with the political winds.
Instead, in the First Amendment to the Constitution, they declared: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” It says there shall be “no law” at all, not even one that prohibits the burning of our flag. To add the flag desecration amendment to the Constitution makes the document contradictory.
The Founders never mentioned flag burning, but the Supreme Court, in 1989 and 1990, ruled that free speech included a right for people to express their grievances by abusing the flag.
Since then, flag-desecration incidents have dropped to almost nothing. But that hasn’t stopped those who think they know better than the Founders from trying to rewrite their work.
Five times since 1995, the House has approved constitutional amendments that would bar desecration of the flag. Each time it has failed in the Senate, where it should die again.
Today, as Americans remember the flag as a physical representation of our country’s values, it is equally important to celebrate what those values are.
Flag Etiquette ...
No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.
(a) The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
(b) The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red
below, should be used for covering a speaker's desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.
(e) The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.
(f) The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.
(h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.
(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.
(k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
(Pub. L. 105-225, Sec. 2(a), Aug. 12, 1998, 112 Stat. 1497.)