desecration – or freedom of expression?
January 27, 1999

“I share the feelings that gave birth to the (flag) amendment; seeing our flag desecrated makes me angry. But our angry reaction is the point: it illustrates the power of flag desecration as symbolic speech. It is a most powerful way for someone to tell us they believe we are doing something wrong, that we are not living up to our ideals. “
–Mike Pheneger, Colonel – United States Army (Retired)
Originally published in the Tampa Tribune

I am a veteran (US Army 1961-1964). Colonel Mike Pheneger expressed his thoughts on flag desecration better than I ever did: while it made him angry, he wrote, “It is a most powerful way for someone to tell us they believe we are doing something wrong, that we are not living up to our ideals. “

While never myself a “flag-waver”, I have always respected the flag, and our right to honor it as we choose. I never liked flag-burning, and never approved of it. I was bitterly opposed to those doing the flag-burnings in the ’60’s, and my respect for this act itself has not improved much since.

In time, I did come to understand that many of the terrible things said about the VietNam war were actually true. I came to respect, at least, the courage of those who defied the law, or emigrated to Canada. I still view flag-burning as an expression I would never choose for myself.

But I always understood that the very act of outlawing that action, of which I disapproved, would negate the whole point of defending the flag or the ideas of freedom for which that symbol stands. I have never been able to entirely fathom the motive of those who would jail others for “victimless crimes” of which they did not approve.

In the end, I concluded there were many motivations for illegalizing expressive behaviors that did not harm others. All of them are dependent on the assumption that the law may be used as a tool to punish those with whom we merely disagree.

In the majority of cases, it seems that the advocates of illegalization do not actually grasp the consequential impact of their ideas upon achievement of their own values. In some cases, I concluded that they do grasp the consequences, but that they expected somehow to be exempted from them.

  • Passage of a constitutional amendment against desecration of the flag would be a grievous mistake, a triple travesty.
  • It would demote the historical authority of the Constitution to the status of hall monitor, forever demeaning it and leaving it vulnerable to new attacks.
  • It would criminalize a freedom of expression, however controversial and unpopular, which has survived as protected behavior in this century.
  • Lastly, it would sever any meaningful relationship between our Flag as our own symbol, and the voluntary actions of ourselves as free citizens, for which it stands.

The American flag has always been “our flag”. True patriots, in America at least, would never salute a flag merely because they were told the law requires them to blindly respect it.

Even citizens who claim not to be “flag-wavers” put a lot of stock in the flag. We should. It’s ours, and our voluntary participation in the freedoms it symbolizes is the source of its strength, and a point of pride for Americans.

There are many reasons to oppose this proposed amendment to our constitution. It’s asinine. It’s dangerous. It’s a monumental infringement of fundamental rights. It’s insidious, because it hits below the belt at a widely recognized symbol of all of those rights, including the right to disagree. It’s extremely unsound, unwise — and slipshod legislation.

Were this abomination actually to pass, one thing would be remembered above all else:

The proposed constitutional amendment would rightly be seen as the surrendering of custody of this flag back to the government. This action would be remembered as “the day they took our flag away”. And that would be morally intolerable.

U.S. flag - Freedom Series
The letter above was faxed to my local representatives in Congress (1999). Whether you agree or disagree, please take action by sending a letter to your Representatives concerning this amendment. The best source for email or fax addresses for your local representatives is probably your local newspaper, its web page, or the ACLU. For further information on this or other civil liberties issues, see Source material http://www.aclu.org/index.html

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