I understand that many of my conservative friends – and even Arlen Specter, the hypocritical bastard – are in favor of the proposed amendment that the Senate will start debating today on criminalizing the burning of the American flag.
But in a nation born of dissent, it seems to me that passing an amendment that would contradict one of the main things the flag represents is not only wrong but does an injustice to those who fought and died to protect it.
I know I’ll get a lot of flack for that last statement. But how meaningful can a heroes’ death be if we place a limit on what he died for? Must we also pass an amendment saying that this religion or that religion is outlawed? Should we amend the Constitution to prevent the New York Times from publishing all secrets? Perhaps we should have an amendment that outlaws lobbying? Or that limits demonstrations against the government?
We’d never think of amending the Constitution for any of those things. Even the New York Times, arrogant and self righteous though they may be, must be allowed to decide whether or not to publish information that may harm national security. We don’t like it. We believe they did it because, at bottom, they disagree with the government’s contention that we are at war and that publishing secrets gives aid and comfort to the enemy. But in the end, they must not be prevented from making their own judgments in such matters because to limit their decision making also puts prior restraint on their ability to publish. That is de facto censorship and cannot be allowed in a free society.
Living in America ain’t easy. This is a country that re-invents itself every few years, putting enormous strain on people to adapt. But there must be some things in America that should never change. And one of those things is the right to dissent in any way that does not harm another person or their property. Putting restraints on how someone dissents is the same as limiting their ability to disagree. Yes there are better ways to dissent than burning the flag. But who are you or I to tell anyone else that?
Burning the flag is hurtful, stupid, and reveals the dissenter to be more interested in provoking people than in making a statement against the government. But there’s no law against being an idiot. If that were the case, most politicians would be thrown in the slammer. Here’s Arlen Specter supporting the flag burning amendment:
Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, compared the measure to Supreme Court decisions banning so-called “fighting words,” slander, libel, obscenity and pornography involving children. As such, he said, it has no “social value.”
“Flag burning is a form of expression that is spiteful or vengeful,” the five-term Pennsylvania Republican said during the debate. “It is designed to hurt. It is not designed to persuade.”
This from a man who has been on the Administration’s case over the NSA intercept program because of his own extraordinarily narrow interpretation of privacy rights. All of a sudden, he wants to radically broaden the definition of “fighting words?”
If we outlawed all political speech that wasn’t meant to persuade, we’d have to tape the mouths shut of every politician in the country, starting with Specter. And how in God’s name did child pornography get into the debate over flag burning? And who said that child porn had any connection whatsoever to the “fighting words” doctrine?
Specter and the Republicans in the Senate are pandering, pure and simple. I don’t mind it so much when they push something like the so called Marriage Amendment that hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of passing. That kind of pandering is constitutionally harmless just because it will never pass. (Whether or not the issue is hurtful to gays is another issue entirely). But political posturing in support of this amendment that would limit the way people dissent is a different story. Mucking around with the Constitution for political gain is wrong. I felt the same way about ERA, the balanced budget, and the abortion amendments. Fooling around with the Constitution is deadly serious business which is why it has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights became law.
I think this is the third post I’ve done on this issue and each time received varying rebukes from my readers for believing both flag burning and amending the constitution to criminalize it is wrong.
Hopefully, I won’t have to write another for a long, long time.
The amendment, needing two thirds to pass, fell short of passage by one vote 66-34. Here are the gory details.
Would it have passed 37 state legislatures and made part of the Constitution? That’s something I hope we never have to find out.