Wednesday, July 18, 2001

House: Yes to flag protection

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives endorsed a constitutional amendment Tuesday that would enable Congress to prohibit people from desecrating the American flag.

        Arguing that the flag is a patriotic symbol of the nation worthy of federal protection, lawmakers rejected complaints that a constitutional amendment would undermine free speech.

        The House voted 298-125 in favor of the proposed amendment, the third time in the past six years the House has tried to protect the flag.

        The Senate has yet to match the two-thirds majority vote necessary to send a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification.

        Voting for the proposed amendment were Ohio Republicans John Boehner, Steve Chabot and Rob Portman. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, and Ken Lucas, R-Ky., also voted yes. Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., voted no.

        Mr. Chabot said the government regulates certain forms of speech through obscenity, libel and copyright laws. He contends preserving the flag as a symbol would not restrain significantly free expression.

        “You can't burn your draft card. You can't burn money,” said Mr. Chabot, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. “There are many acts you can't perform.”

        The Citizens Flag Alliance, an Indianapolis collection of interest groups that support a constitutional amendment, has counted more than 80 incidents of flag desecration since 1994.

        The Supreme Court has ruled twice that flag desecration is recognized under the First Amendment and has thrown out state and federal laws protecting the flag.

        The resolution the House passed Tuesday would amend the Constitution and specifically allow Congress to outlaw flag desecration.

        Marty Justis, executive director of the Citizens Flag Alliance, said 49 states have asked Congress to adopt a flag-protection amendment.

        “Protecting the flag does not stop a single idea from being expressed,” he said.

        The Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va., foundation that advocates free speech, released a survey in June that found that 74 percent of the people interviewed opposed flag burning or desecration. But the survey also showed that 59 percent opposed a constitutional amendment to protect the flag, up from 51 percent last year.

        Mr. Justis conceded the amendment could stall again in the Senate, where Democrats control the legislative agenda and powerful Republicans, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., oppose it for philosophical reasons.

        Mr. McConnell, ranking member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, wrote a letter to House Republicans in June asking them to join him in opposition.

        “It would be unfortunate if we began tampering with the important and fundamental protections of the First Amendment because of a handful of malcontents,” he wrote of people who desecrate the flag.

        Other lawmakers said the nation has had a history of tolerating even the most extreme examples of free expression, from racists who march in white robes to artists who mix religious symbols with human waste.

        “I think we are better off as a society letting people express themselves as freely as possible,” said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.


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