The following essay was written by Senator Dianne Feinstein

OPEN FORUM -- The Flag Deserves Protection

THERE SEEMS to be a mind-set, particularly among Democrats, that if you support a constitutional amendment to protect the American flag you are either (a) opposed to free speech, (b) undermining the most fundamental tenets of a free society or (c) singing like a political wind-chime to the popular tune of the day. In my view, it is exactly this kind of straight-jacketed thinking that has caused an increasing number of people to move away from both major political parties.

The fact is, there are intelligent arguments on both sides of the flag-amendment debate. To be sure, just as one who opposes amending the Constitution to protect the flag should not be accused of being less than wholly American, one who supports it should not automatically be accused of engaging in pseudo-patriotic posturing.

I, for one, support a constitutional amendment to restore protection to our national flag, and I do so not in deference to political expediency, but because I believe it is the right thing to do and have for a long time. Our national flag has come to hold a unique position in our society as the most important and universally recognized symbol that unites us as a nation. No other symbol crosses the political, cultural and ideological patchwork that makes up this great nation and binds us as a whole.

We are not creating a symbol to honor today. The evolution of the American flag as the preeminent symbol of our national consciousness is as old and as rich as the evolution of the country itself.

It wasn't until the flag was fired upon at Fort Sumter -- in an act of war -- that Americans came to look upon the flag as more than just a symbol of their government. Our history books are replete with stories of soldiers who were charged with the responsibility of leading their units into battle by carrying the flag. It was an honor worth dying for -- and many did.

The unique status of the national flag is supported by constitutional scholars as diverse as Chief Justices William Rehnquist and Earl Warren, and Justices John Paul Stevens and Hugo Black. It is my belief that restoring legal protection to our nation's flag would not infringe on our long-standing tradition of free speech under the First Amendment.

Until the Supreme Court's 1990 decision overturning the federal law banning desecration of the flag, 48 of 50 states had laws preventing the burning or defacing of our nation's flag. I do not believe one can credibly claim that, over the course of those years, these laws prevented anyone from speaking out, even against the United States itself, in the strongest possible terms.

I view the burning of our national flag as conduct -- not speech -- and I support the constitutional amendment that will treat it as such. I realize that, in order to avoid unduly infringing on legitimate forms of expression, the language of this amendment must not be vague or over-inclusive.

I will never forget the emotion I felt as a child when I saw that famous photograph by San Francisco photographer Joe Rosenthal of the Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima -- capturing in one moment in time, the strength and determination of the entire nation.

The courage and devotion of these brave soldiers should not be allowed to become simple relics in our history books -- some anachronism of times past. If we are not teaching our children today the kind of values and respect that produced such courage and pride, then those will most certainly die in the hearts of those soldiers. Our country can't afford that.

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Warren S. Apel