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Statement Of George E. Bushnell Jr.
President Of The American Bar Association
News Conference, Friday, August 4, 1995 As a citizen and as a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, it is extremely offensive to me that anyone would violate the American flag to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with public policy. But I did not serve my country in order to protect that physical symbol of our great country; I fought to protect the ideals it represents, including the right of free speech-especially wrong-headed, illconsidered, offensive political speech. While my feelings about the flag remain strong, my feelings about the principles of freedom and democracy the flag represents are even stronger. The American flag commands respect and love because of our country's adherence to its values and its promise of freedom, not because of fiat and criminal law. The millions of men and women who have put themselves in harm's way in the service of our nation did so to ensure that the rights guaranteed in the Constitution will be available to ourselves, and to our progeny. We have an obligation to protect that legacy.
That legacy is in grave danger today. The flag burning amendment seeks to chip away at the guarantees contained in the Bill of Rights. Not once in the more than 200 years since those freedoms were established have we seen fit to tinker with these principles. Yet now some politicians seem willing to go blindly down the path of restricting speech that they find repugnant and distasteful.
Today's "sunshine patriots," heeding misleading polls that suggest that Americans want a "flag desecration" amendment, have made it a legislative priority. Although the amendment sailed through the House, the momentum is shifting and a close Senate vote is expected.
It turns out that when Americans begin to understand the implications of such an amendment, they no longer support it. The Peter Hart poll just released asked whether Americans favor or oppose a new amendment to prohibit the burning or other desecration of the American flag. Put so baldly, the results were as you'd expect -- 64 percent were in favor of such an amendment, and only 30 percent opposed it.
But when asked in a followup question if they would favor or oppose such an amendment if they knew that it would be the first in our nation's history to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of political protest, the results were dramatically different-a majority of Americans opposed such an amendment, by 52 percent to 38 percent.
There is only so much that the ABA can do to educate the public about the dangers of the proposed amendment. Most Americans think they want a flag burning amendment, and those pollwatching political patriots will happily take them at their word. But you, the press, can do much more-and you must. When Americans know the facts, their views change. When we are talking about making such a fundamental constitutional change, we must have a thorough, public debate to ensure that those facts come out. If the press does not take up the battle, who will? The media must and can let the public know just how they are being manipulated and misled, in both this instance and in others very similar-such as the proposed school prayer amendment. Thomas Paine once said, "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women." We hope the members of the Senate will stand tall and vote to preserve the First Amendment freedoms that benefit us all.
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Warren S. Apel