During a recent Art Appreciation class, in which we studied Scott Tyler’s controversial display of the American flag, the subject of a flag burning amendment naturally found its way into the discussion. Some students were sorry such an amendment has not yet passed, others were angry that it had ever been suggested in the first place. I myself do not necessarily agree with flag desecration, but neither do I agree with an amendment banning it, as doing so would only destroy everything that the flag stands for.
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States grants the people freedom of speech, which includes expressing themselves through flag burning. The flag itself gives people the right to burn that very flag. By passing an amendment against such, we are basically saying that we value the flag more than the freedoms it represents. The flag alone is just a symbol; what gives it value is the freedoms it stands for, but if those freedoms are denied, then the flag stands for nothing and is worth no more than the cloth it is printed on. The flag is the symbol of our freedom, but let us not destroy the freedom to save the symbol. Let us not forsake the country to save the flag.
The flag is the symbol of America, but it is not America itself. If every American flag were reduced to ash, would the United States be any less of a country? No, because the spirit of America cannot be destroyed with a mere box of matches. Burn every flag, and still America lives.
If an amendment to protect the flag was passed, it has been suggested that it would not only protect the physical flag, but also images of the flag. For example, a painting of flag burning would be illegal. If such were to happen, where the line be drawn? Who would decide what qualified as flag desecration? Would the image of the match under the flag be considered desecration, for it does not actually portray the flag being burned, it merely suggests it. Would it be illegal to print the image of the flag on T-shirts or napkins for the 4th of July? “Patriotism outlawed in the name of patriotism,” the headline might read. If someone were to shoot a movie based in the 1960’s, which included a flag burning scene, would the scene have to be cut, forgoing historical accuracy in order to comply with the amendment? If so, then the government would, in essence, be deciding what people may watch on their television sets.
If painting a burning flag would be illegal, would talking or singing songs about flag burning be outlawed by a desecration amendment? If so, such would certainly be an infringement on freedom of speech. And where then would the laws end? What other rights could be revoked in the name of patriotism until the very basis of the Constitution itself was undermined. And without the Constitution, what is America?
I dearly love what the flag represents, and thus I must be against an amendment to protect it, for if flag burning is outlawed, then we removed what the flag stands for. And if we remove what the flag stands for, then what is the flag? No more than a piece of cloth.