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Flag Letters

The flag amendment is dead for now. But we all know it'll be back.

So, with that in mind, here are the responses from RCP Blog readers to my earlier post expressing some skepticism about the amendment.

Most surprising, to me at least, was that the letters ran about 3-to-1 against the amendment.

A sampling (a little heavy on the pro-flag-amendment ones, for balance) after the jump.

To the editor:

Put really simply, the American flag is the symbolic representation of our country. Hundreds of thousands of men and women have died or been maimed fighting to protect our country. Many of them died protecting the physical flag. Read accounts of 19th century battles. Look at what our foreign enemies do to our flag when they have managed to capture one. They desecrate it.

It is hardly a violation of anyone's first amendment rights to speech to forbid the physical desecration of our country's symbol. You say it's a right. Because you say so? Because the supreme court changed it's collective mind on the issue after many decades? The Congress and States through the amendment process have the constitutional right to correct the Supreme Court.

I hope this amendment finally passes.

Bill Brockman
Atlanta, GA

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If the coercive power of the state includes banning the burning of leaves in your backyard, what's the big deal to include a flag? If leaves (or air quality) deserve such protection, does not the flag?

Paul Smith
Dallas, TX

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You are right up until the point that the flag burning amendment is passed by 2/3rds of House and Senate and 75% of the states. Then it becomes equal to the first amendment. We will have said through our political process that we support free speech but we won't extend that protection to flag burning.

This is exactly how the political process is supposed to work. Take a controversial issue, put a huge political hurdle requiring lots of commentary and debate and overwhelming popular acceptance to enact it.

I don't like the campaign finance reform (not because I think the campaigns are a pure as the driven snow, but because of the distortions in political speech it imposes). But if they went to the same process to make it an amendment, fine.

Make a substantive argument on why there should not be a flag burning amendment that doesn't involve the first amendment. At best most people can come up with is that they don't think it is such a serious issue to warrant an amendment or that we should show ourselves more tolerant. But if 75% of the country (as represented by the state legislatures that would pass it) think it is worth while, that the idea of what the flag stands for should be respected, then those arguments against the ban have had their say and failed.

I just wish that proponents of other controversial public positions (e.g. gay marriage, abortion, unauthorized release of national secrets) would go through the rigor of crafting, promulgating and passing an amendment.


* * *

We the country continues to be troubled by the 'free speech' movement of the Sixties which, through the courts, became the law of the land. When the definition of speech became broadened to any form of expression, all kinds of 'hell' became legal. If anyone wonders where all the pornography came from, they just need to look to the courts application of 'free speech'. And, of course, this re-defining of what constitutes speech affects everything from flag burning to campaign contributions to nakedness to you name it. We need the Supreme Court to help re-establish speech as the Constitution drafters knew it. Then the voters can operate within that framework. Life would be simpler, less political and certainly 'cleaner'.

Ralph Wright
Colorado Springs, CO

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I agree completely that Flag Burning should not be prohibited. Burning the US Flag should remain distastefully legal and legally distasteful. Burning the flag is insulting to all of who love our country, and especially to all of those who served in the armed forces, knew or loved someone who did, or lost someone in the service of their country.

But, distasteful as it may be, burning the flag is free speech, just as our swift and merciless condemnation of those that do it is free speech.

The Flag is not a religious symbol, and writing an amendment to protect it is nothing short of elevating it to that status.

Better for us to allow those people who hate their country so much as to disrespect those who died preserving it - and those show themselves - than to take away that right.


* * *

I agree with your assessment regarding the flag burning amendment. Yes, flag burning is disgraceful and is a slap in the face to every veteran who has fought and died protecting the citizens of the United States. However, freedom of speech was one of the many rights for which those veterans died. No difference exists between some anti-American liberal intellectual (Ward Churchill) professing his hatred of the United States and someone torching an American flag. Flag burning uses symbolism, while someone like Ward Churchill uses words. The First Amendment begins by stating "Congress shall make no law...", but that is what Congress is about to do: enact a law restricting free speech.


* * *

Your statement "Either American citizens have the right to speak -- to express themselves, to associate -- or they don't." is, I am sure, a knowing oversimplification. The courts have already placed/allowed many limits on these rights, many of which are obviously appropriate (i.e., fire!, slander). Personally, I have no problem with flag burning as a means of expression and would probably, but not certainly, vote against the proposed amendment if I had a vote. But I also accept that some persons whom I respect, in good faith and not solely or primarily from base political motives, believe that flag burning is a uniquely pernicious form of expression that should be prohibited. If they succeed, I will choose to accept it as a vindication of the right to seek and obtain an amendment of the Constitution and not as betrayal of a sacrosanct First Amendment. Nor do I believe that the comparison between campaign finance restrictions and flag burning is apposite. Campaign finance restrictions truly inhibit vital political speech and have never (as far as I know) been proposed as the subject of a constitutional amendment. In sum. I wish you had confined your opposition to a flag burning amendment to its merits instead of making an attack ad hominem on those who support it.

Jim Hunter

* * *

Glad to see a little common sense on this issue. How many flags get burned each year anyway? What about all the Supreme Court decisions addressing use of the flag as speech? It is a sad waste of time.


* * *

You've never been more right. Watching the "conservative" party pander like this is disgusting.

Keith Morton
Northfield, IL

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First off, thank you for your blog and realclearpolitics.com! I believe that this is the best clearinghouse of political philosophy and thought on the internet. To get this quantity of conservative-liberal, libertarian-statist, capitalist-socialist views, I would have to go to numerous sources. So, again, thank you!

Onto your blog entry - You state that:

Either American citizens have the right to speak -- to express themselves, to associate -- or they don't. Campaign-finance reform is a liberal's way of stifling speech he or she doesn't like. And a ban on flag burning is a conservative's way of stifling speech he or she doesn't like (emphasis added). Either both restrictions of speech are OK, meaning the government can restrict speech when a majority of citizens or their legislators want that speech restricted, or neither one is OK.

Would you admit that that liberals and conservatives use different methods to achieve their goals? Liberals use the courts and extra-constitutional means by changing the law and meaning of the Constitution. Conservatives use the legal process within the Constitution to change the "rights" of all Americans, with 2/3 vote in both houses and 3/4 vote in all state houses - giving the American people ample opportunity to voice their opinions. Liberals don't.

You would have to admit that, if someone believes that this practice should be banned, this is the proper and legal way to accomplish this, correct? Personally, I welcome the debate on freedom of speech and flag burning - and all of the merit and demerit attached.

The national discussion is whether flag burning is a "right". Conservatives put this discussion up for debate - liberals, as a habit, don't. I happen to agree with your libertarian assessment - that there should not be a Constitutional Amendment to give Congress the right to regulate this issue - it is best regulated as a public safety issue, which is grounded, versus an emotional issue, which is not grounded. Finally, I think your cynicism of politicians' motive is very valid, but your explanation of conservative-liberal methods is glossed over for the reader.

Tim Hediger

* * *

Why is it necessary to burn the American flag to make a point? All this does is to show one's hatred and contempt for his/her country and him/her self. I look at this as another sign of contempt liberals have for America, this somehow assuages their guilt as was so well stated by Shelby Steele. Why is it so necessary to show such hate, it adds nothing to any debate. Isn't this hate we are trying to get out of our society? The left rightly deplores hate crimes against, women, gays, etc. Are we not within our rights as rationale beings to insist that debate on any issue be civil and displayed without contempt? I think so. I have a son in the army. His tour will soon be up. I am glad of this not for the obvious safety reasons, but I recognize that there are many in America who are not worth his sacrifice or any other American boy or girl. Those who live by hate will die by hate.

Joe Bartlow

* * *

People think freedom of speech only applies to speech that doesn't
offend them. While I think burning the US flag is despicable, limiting
freedom of speech is more despicable.

Randy R

* * *

The First Amendment is about protecting the message, not the medium. (No, they're not the same.) I have a constitutional right to express my contempt for Senator Clinton. But that doesn't give me the right to parade around the U.S. Capitol stark naked with "Hillary Sucks" tattooed on my behind. There are alternatives. What possible message is contained in flag desecration that cannot be communicated through some other means?

The courts have always recognized that the First Amendment has an exception for "fighting words." I have a right to say "I don't like you." But when I start insulting your mother and questioning her sexual proclivities that protection goes away, and I'm the one who is to blame when you try to smash my face. Flag burning is also "fighting words," especially for veterans. Flag burners aren't trying to articulate any particular message beyond "I hate America." They are trying to attract attention and piss people off - not constitutional rights.

I'm especially angry with the Supreme Court's hypocrisy in declaring flag burning protected, but cross burning not. Cross burning is far more closely tied to a specific message. A nasty message, but one with constitutional protection. Please explain why some anti-American toe-rag can burn a flag at a military funeral, but some cone-headed klansman can't burn a cross on his private farm.


* * *

I was sad to see that only two GOP senators voted against the amendment. I was pleased to see Mr. McConnell was one of them and I think that is especially fitting in terms of your linked argument on campaign finance "reform." As I am sure you recall, Sen. McConnell was the leader of the fight against the abhorrent McCain-Feingold Act and refused to go along despite tremendous pressure to do so.

His stand was in marked contrast to President Bush who signed the bill into law despite having stated his belief that all or some of the legislation was unconstitutional in his opinion. While I generally support our president it seems clear from the wording that signing legislation the president believes to be unconstitutional directly violates his oath of office. The fact that many presidents have done so does not excuse it.

I do disagree that campaign finance reform legislation is purely or even mostly a left wing interest. I would agree that Democrats are usually keener for it, but it is really about incumbency protection. Sadly two of the chief pillars of incumbency protection, campaign finance reform and district gerrymandering, are also two of the few areas where the two parties work well together.

It is particularly galling to me that the Senate can't find the time to do the heavy lifting of their jobs by figuring out Social Security, spending cuts, corporate tax questions, Medicare/aid, immigration, or dozens of other things but has loads of time to worry about flag burning.

In any event, the amendment thankfully failed to receive the 67 votes necessary and will hopefully die, at least for a while.

Will Althoff