“This flag, which we honor and under which we serve, is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours” (quoted in Smith 87). This statement by Woodrow Wilson summarizes the debate over a proposed amendment to outlaw burning of the American flag. Is this symbol of our nation too powerful to be defiled in our collective mind, or is its manifestation of values the reason for us to outlaw its desecration? We see many constitutional and non-constitutional reasons both for and against passing the amendment; an analysis of the Constitution is vital to forming a valid opinion on this issue.
In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled that burning the flag is a form of free speech which may not be limited by the government. One of the earliest decisions on this issue was in Street v. New York (1969). After hearing about the murder of civil rights leader James Meredith, Sidney Street, a decorated veteran of World War II, burned a flag he had been displaying at his home (Cohen 185), telling bystanders that “if they let that happen to Meredith, we don’t need an American flag” (Cohen 185). He was arrested, tried before a jury, and convicted under the state’s statute prohibiting both the desecration of the flag and publicly speaking contemptuous words about it. Street’s attorney appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled the sentence unconstitutional. The Court’s opinion was based mainly upon Mr. Street’s words; it stated that his declarations were a form of protest which is protected by the First Amendment and that he did not provoke retaliation fro…
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…mocracy. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.
4. “H.J.RES.5.” Online. Thomas . October 29, 2000.
5. “H.J.RES.33.” Online. Thomas . October 29, 2000.
6. O’Brien, Tim. “The Great Divide: Flag Burning Decision Split the Court.” ABC News OnLine. 1999. October 11, 2000.
7. “S.931.” Online. Thomas . October 29, 2000.
8. Smith, Whitney. The Flag Book of the United States. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1970.
9. U.S. Supreme Court. “Street v. New York.” 21 April 1969. FindLaw. Online. . October 29, 2000.
10. Webb, Sandi. “A Grand Old Flag? Does the U.S. really need to Prohibit Flag Burning?” Online. September 1995. Libertarian Party News . September 30, 2000.
11. Williams, Armstrong. “The Flag Burning Amendment.” New York Amsterdam News: 8.28. October 1999. EbscoHost . October 29, 2000.
Flag Burning and the First Amendment
Your First Amendment rights are extremely close to being violated by none other than the United States Congress. I refer to the Flag Desecration Bill that, if passed, would do irreparable damage to our right to free speech and undermine the very priniciples for which the American flag stands. Fortunately, West Virginians have an ally in Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Sen. Byrd, who previously favored the bill, now fights to protect our rights by stopping the passage of this bill. I applaud his stand and want to reinforce his position. I also encourage you to join Sen. Byrd’s campaign to ensure the legacy and supremacy of the greatest law in the land: the United States Constitution.
Though the Senate expects to vote on this amendment before the 105th Congress adjourns this fall, this is not the first time such a bill has been introduced to Congress. Nonetheless, this is the closest that it has ever come to actually passing through both Houses. The Citizens Flag Alliance recorded that the House passed the flag-protection resolution by a vote of 310-144 on June 12, 1997 (internet). It was then sent to the Senate in February for a vote. Is there a possibility such a bill could pass in the Senate? According to Daniel S. Webster, President of the Citizens Flag Alliance, as many as 64 Senators have already committed to voting “yes” for the amendment (internet). The Constitution states that only 67 votes are needed to propose the amendment to the state legislatures. If 38 state legislatures approve the proposed amendment, it will then ratify the Constitution (Wilson). According to the Citizens Flag Alliance, 49 states have already passed the resolution (internet). With such a close margin, those Senators who oppose the legislation need o…
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“Flag Supporters Press Senate to Protect Old Glory.” Citizens Flag Alliance. (4 Aug. 1998).
26 Sept. 1998 .
Goldstein, Robert. “This Flag Is Not for Burning.” Nation. 7 July 1994: 84.
Henderson, Christine. Personal interview. 1 Oct. 1998.
Ketter, William. “Fold Up the Flag Amendment or Rights Will Fly At Half-Mast.” Christian
Science Monitor. 13 Oct. 1995: 19.
Kreul, Keith. “The Pseudo Patriotism of the Flag Amendment.” Christian Science Monitor.
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“Senate Subcommittee Approves S.J. Res. 40.” Citizens Flag Alliance. (18 June 1998).
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Wilson, James, et. al. American Government: The Essentials. 7th ed. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1998.