Flag Day, June 14th, the day we commemorate the adoption of the Flag of the United States, has come and gone. The flag means different things to different people, and that includes those who don’t respect it, who desecrate it through burning or other vile ways to convey a message.
Most of us are taught at a young age to respect the flag, to not let it touch the ground, and where appropriate, to salute it or place one’s hand over the heart. For decades intentional flag desecration was a prosecutable offense in most if not all states. That changed after 1984.
At the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas in 1984, Gregory L. Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, was arrested for burning the flag. He appealed his conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in 1989 in a 5 to 4 decision that included conservatives Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy in the majority.
The opinion overturned laws banning flag desecration. That same year Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, but in 1990 the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Flag burning is considered a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Attempts to pass a constitutional amendment to make it a criminal offense have failed.
This month the same Gregory Johnson made news again. At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland he burned another flag and was arrested on charges stemming from the incident. The city of Cleveland just settled a civil rights case that awarded Johnson $225,000 after the charges were dropped against him and other protesters.
Americans of different political persuasions support a constitutional amendment that would provide a special place for the American flag. Those who believe the flag deserves a special place, who believe that its desecration is a bridge too far, usually associate this symbol with powerful graphics of our American fighting forces in combat. You would have to be Rip Van Winkle not to be familiar with one of the most iconic photos of World War II, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima by U.S. Marines. All too many Americans have died protecting our American way of life, the values they believe our flag represents.
For me personally, I can only wonder what went through my father and his parents’ heads as they sailed into New York Harbor in 1936 from Nazi Germany and saw the Statue of Liberty and the American Flag. I still vividly recall the music of the Star Spangled Banner and the raising of the flag after completing survival school before going to Vietnam thinking of the promise our country made that they would never abandon us if we were captured or lost. That sacred promise was part of every stitch in the fabric of that flag.
But what our flag represents is different from the flags of other countries. It does not represent a uniform way of thinking. Patriotism is manifested in a variety of ways. And that includes Americans with political, religious, and social values that are often not considered mainstream. Our history is replete with groups such as blacks, women, gays, Jews, and others who were excluded from the enjoyment and protection of constitutional rights afforded others. Often, members of these groups burned or otherwise desecrated the flag to show how they were not considered full Americans with the same rights.
This is as it should be if the First Amendment is to have any meaning. The flag, as a powerful symbol that can easily raise the ire in most Americans if used outside the accepted norm, is also a way to attract attention to one’s cause. Protest, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech are so important to who we are as Americans that to eliminate the one object of protest that stirs up the passions like no other, is to weaken our Constitution.
I think of the black soldiers who returned from World War II to a country, mostly the Deep South, where they were denied the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to serve in government, the right to be treated the same as other Americans. What better way to get their message across in the civil rights protests that the flag did not include them than to use that very flag to denounce an unjust system.
Singling out the American flag for special treatment can only lead to further erosion of symbolic speech. Would burning a copy of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, a photo of the Statue of Liberty as a form of protest also be criminalized? However contemptible flag desecration may be, it’s symbolic value has not undermined the strength of our country and our Constitution. In fact, we are stronger and better for it. Long may the flag of the United States of America fly over the land of the free and the home of the brave.