Trashing Freedom In Order to Save It

COMMENT

July 02, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

Even though we haven't experienced an epidemic of flag-burnings since the war in Vietnam -- there were but a half-dozen incidents reported last year -- the U.S. House of Representatives cleared its legislative calendar last Wednesday to approve a constitutional amendment that would prohibit desecrating Old Glory.

It is even more ironic that members of Congress approved this amendment a week before we are to celebrate the 219th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The signers of that remarkable document would not approve of this amendment. They and the framers of the U.S. Constitution were adamant in their opposition to tyranny by the state.

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion -- or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein," wrote Justice Robert Jackson in 1943 in the case of West Virginia School State Board of Education vs. Barnette.

In writing for the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court at a time when the nation was engaged in war with countries that had no respect for individual freedoms, Justice Jackson said that the local school board could not expel children who refused to salute the flag. The children, devout Jehovah's Witnesses, said the classroom ritual violated their religious beliefs that prohibit swearing allegiance to anything or anyone but God. Justice Jackson went on to say that government officials cannot compel citizens to perform officially prescribed patriotic displays because it would violate the very essence of the First Amendment.

Under our system of government, we value the means -- free speech, due process and equal opportunity -- as much as the ends. That is one of the reasons the original Bill of Rights has remained intact for more than two centuries. The flag is a powerful and important symbol of our nation, but liberty -- including the liberty to burn the flag -- should be even more important to us.

"If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for thought we hate," said another Supreme Court jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes. This ability to criticize those in power and freely disagree is what makes this nation strong.

"Criticism is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism -- a higher form of patriotism, I believe, that the familiar rituals and national adulation," the late Sen. J. William Fulbright said.

In their zeal to accumulate easy political points with the public, proponents of this measure are willing to trivialize the Constitution and trample protections that have existed since the founding of the nation. Neither is this propensity to compromise freedom confined to Capitol Hill.

L Here in Carroll County, free speech often carries its costs.

The most notable example was the persecution of Pamela Snowhite Davis two years ago for her outspoken support for the legalization of marijuana. After being charged with receiving marijuana through the mails, Ms. Davis attempted to start a grass-roots effort to promote marijuana use. In response, the state's attorneys conducted a crude vendetta against her. They lodged trumped-up charges of distribution against her because she was giving away sterilized marijuana seeds along with literature advocating marijuana from her counter-culture store in Westminster.

When prosecutors tried the case, the state's attorney introduced confiscated literature promoting marijuana as evidence of criminal activity to bolster a weak case.

This tactic of using magazines to illustrate Ms. Davis' state of mind worked for the prosecution during her first trial but failed the second time. Circuit Court Judge Luke K. Burns Jr., unlike his colleague Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr., quickly dismissed mere possession of pro-marijuana literature as "having nothing to do with the case."

The operations of the Carroll County Drug Task Force, which also often overstepped its bounds when confiscating vehicles from drug suspects, provide countians with another close-to-home example of when officials believe a laudable public goal provides carte blanche to act in any manner. Too many of today's politicians aren't concerned about bedrock principles of freedom. They are more concerned about reading the polls and following the dictates of "the people."

While the U.S. is a democracy that believes in majority rule, we all enjoy certain "unalienable" rights that are beyond the reach of government leaders and cannot be changed by elections.

A careful reading of the Declaration of Independence shows that most of the complaints against King George were against his arbitrary efforts to maintain his notion of order in the colonies by -- trampling on the rights of the colonists.

Maintaining order is a understandable desire, but the most ordered society is one where freedom is the right that must be sacrificed. No where else in the world have people been given the kinds of freedoms we too often take for granted. While we enjoy the fireworks and barbecues this Fourth of July, we should remember that these freedoms are very precious and that we should be ever vigilant in protecting them.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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