An election-year Fourth of July is upon us, and so it is that a proposed flag-burning amendment to the Constitution is upon us.
Senate GOP leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has called up the amendment for debate this week with a vote likely just before the Senate knocks off for the Fourth recess. Like the gay-marriage amendment, the flag exercise is designed to stir up those comprising the Republican “base,” who could be forgiven if they start to suspect that their party thinks of them as a bunch of reflexive rubes because GOP strategists treat them that way.
The danger this time around is that the amendment will pass _ it has already passed the House _ and ultimately be ratified by the states. As a feel-good political issue, flag-burning is hard to beat, but constitutionally outlawing it will chisel away at the greatest of the amendments to that document, the first. Said the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, over the weekend: “I think the First Amendment has served us well for over 200 years. I don’t think it needs to be altered.”
The amendment simply says that Congress can prohibit physical desecration. But then matters quickly get not so simple. What precisely is “desecration”? Flag tank tops? Born aloft in a neo-Nazi parade? Formed into an Uncle Sam hat with beer cans attached? The flag has easily withstood this sort of questionable use.
The flag amendment is aimed at banning flag burning and other forms of disrespect in protests against government policy. As such, it is clearly political speech and, as the Supreme Court has ruled, protected under the First Amendment.
As a practical matter, flag burning is so rare as to be close to nonexistent and hardly rises to the level of a national problem. The flag is a lot stronger than its would-be defenders give it credit for; in its symbolism of our national ideals, the flag defends the right to revile it.
After 217 years, we do not need a 28th amendment diluting the first.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)