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Indianapolis Star Tribune
Offense can be the price of freedom

June 14, 2002

Passing an amendment to "protect the flag" would be a grave insult to the veterans who fought so hard upholding the freedoms that flag stands for. Because we are lucky enough to live in a free country, we have to expect that now and then we will be offended by others exercising their rights to free expression.

Countries such as Afghanistan, China and Iraq would obviously arrest citizens for burning their country's flag. Allowing this type of offensive protest is what makes America a truly free country.

Not only would a law against flag desecration be against the idea of a free country, it would be impossible to enforce. Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court can agree on a definition of "desecration" or even of "flag." The current wave of patriotism inspired by the tragic events of last September has resulted in thousands of daily acts of flag desecration. Flag doormats, placemats, candles, napkins and seat covers are clearly illegal under the Flag Code, and would have resulted in arrests if they were sold or used as recently as 30 years ago. Abbie Hoffman was arrested in the late 1960s for wearing a jacket that would be deemed patriotic today.

Right now, flags are being displayed at night and in rainstorms, a disrespect that could be grounds for imprisonment under any flag desecration law. The paper flags in today's newspaper and the tattered, disposable car-window-mounted flags can never be thrown away; they must be retired properly in order to avoid further disrespect to our national symbol.

Ironically, the accepted method of respectful flag retirement is burning.

This is the most intriguing point in the flag-burning argument. When a Boy Scout burns a flag in a ceremony, he is being respectful. When a protester burns the flag at a peaceful protest rally, he is committing desecration. The only difference between these situations is not the acts, but rather the thoughts in the minds of those committing them.

No matter how strongly we love the flag, America should never arrest and imprison peaceful protesters for the crime of "thinking anti-American thoughts." That is basically what desecration boils down to.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that burning the flag during a political rally is protected expression. But that same level of protection is not given to commercial flag desecration.

Almost 100 years ago, a merchant used the American flag painted on a bottle of beer in a commercial way. He was arrested on charges of desecrating the national symbol. Despite appeal, this arrest stood, and has never been overturned. The current use of the flag in advertisements by auto dealers, political parties and grocery stores is patently illegal right now, yet this law is not being enforced.

There is a religious aspect to this law as well. In order to desecrate something, it must first be made sacred. By passing this law, the American government will be elevating the flag to a status above that accorded to religious figures, icons and symbols. For this reason, Jehovah's Witnesses and some Muslims choose not to salute the flag. This act of disrespect, while upheld by the Supreme Court as freedom of religion, would be illegal if we changed the Constitution in order to "protect the flag." Putting these people in prison would not make us a stronger country. Nor would it protect the flag.

In fact, the vast majority of flag burnings in America since the end of the Vietnam War have been to protest exactly these types of laws. There are a handful of upset people who choose to express themselves each year by burning the flag -- people who should be ignored.

But there are thousands who burn the flag each time a law like this is introduced or passed. If the lawmakers of America want to stop flag burning, they shouldn't pass Draconian measures aimed at imprisoning peaceful citizens. They should simply keep America the way it always has been. Sometimes being offended is the price we pay for freedom.

Warren S. Apel