Burning issue

Constitutional ban: Flag desecration amendment would chip away at free-speech rights.

April 10, 1999

AGAIN, CONGRESS is moving toward a constitutional ban on desecration of the U.S. flag.

Not a burning issue, you say?

Perhaps that's because instances of flag desecration are so rare -- fewer than 50 since 1777, by one count.

Yet, to outlaw so uncommon an offense, proponents of a constitutional amendment would place limits on the First Amendment -- a very bad idea that has a troubling amount of support in the 106th Congress.

On an emotional level, it's easy to understand why so many lawmakers have lined up to be co-sponsors of the proposed amendment.

But it's a mistake to elevate a symbol to a position of greater importance than what it represents. Clearly at the very heart of the rights that the flag symbolizes is the notion that unpopular -- even objectionable, misguided and obnoxious -- speech is deserving of protection, too.

The U.S. Supreme Court -- hardly a hotbed of liberalism these days -- has twice ruled that flag burning is protected political expression.

Those court rulings should be allowed to stand -- and Congress should keep its hands off the Bill of Rights.

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