The Flag-burning Debate Continues
Nazis captured Jim Rogers. He was routinely beaten and given barely enough food to survive. During the time he spent in a World War II prisoner of war camp, he managed to keep his sanity by scraping together bits and pieces of colored cloth in order to make an American flag. As his fellow prisoners began to die, it was his American flag which provided him with a sense of identity and gave him the inspiration to keep living.
It is no wonder, then, that Jim becomes disturbed when he turns on the news and sees our flag being burned in the streets of foreign nations. What disturbs him even more is when he sees the American flag being burned by Americans in America. In 1989, the Supreme Court overturned, in a 5-4 decision, a guilty verdict against a Texas flag-burner, claiming that burning the American flag is a form of free speech which is constitutionally protected. Yet the fact that flag-burning is legal does not ease Jim's angst, and apparently his feelings are shared by many of his fellow Americans. The majority of Americans are in favor of adopting a constitutional amendment that would make flag-burning illegal (Johnson 16).
After multiple attempts, a flag-burning amendment was finally approved by the House of Representatives in 1995, but it fell 3 votes short of approval in the Senate (Buckly 75). Still, lobbyists continue to push for anti-flag-burning legislation. One may wonder why, if the majority of Americans want the flag protected, does Congress and the Supreme Court continue to resist the idea of a flag amendment.
The easiest argument to make against protecting the flag is that burning it is a form of free speech which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. But a question arises as to whether or not burning a flag is really "speech." The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a
redress of grievances" (Phillips 162).
After reading the First Amendment, it is difficult to see how the act of speaking can be equated with using a cigarette lighter to set a flag on fire. When demonstrators are burning the flag, they are said to be expressing their disapproval toward the government.
But as the observant reader may have noticed, no where in the First Amendment do we find any mention of "expression." Whatever a demonstrator says while burning the flag is speech, but the actual act of burning the flag is expression and, as we have seen, is not necessarily constitutionally protected.
A less common First Amendment defense of the burning the flag is that flag-burning falls under the right of citizens "peaceably to assemble." Although seeing an American flag set on fire would be a source of...