Thursday, June 5, 2003

Don't erode freedoms

House votes to ban flag desecration

The controversy that Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan generated at the Contemporary Arts Center here Saturday, with a work that partly involved his standing on an American flag, reflects a continuing, emotionally charged debate over how we treat that national symbol.

Politically, the debate has been distilled into a simple question: Should the Constitution be amended to let Congress prohibit the "physical desecration" of the flag? Our opinion has been, and continues to be, no - not in spite of what the flag symbolizes, but because of it.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed such an amendment for the fifth time in eight years. The Senate twice has come close to following suit, failing by four votes in 1995 and 2000.

The cause may have even greater traction in a post-9/11 America that has seen a revived pride in displaying the flag. But the issue first arose when the Supreme Court invalidated federal and state flag-protection laws in 1989, ruling 5-4 that flag-burning is a protected free speech right.

That notion stuck in the craws of many Americans. The late Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., who led pro-amendment forces during the '90s, summed up the argument memorably: "Burning the flag is not speech or expression. It is a hateful tantrum."

Perhaps. But even if that is true, why trivialize the Bill of Rights by altering it to ban tantrums? Few true flag-abuse incidents take place; only a handful are documented a year nationwide. Outlawing such acts will only make them more attractive and newsworthy as a protest - making them more frequent. Why invite that?

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, who helped lead the flag-protection effort, offered one rationale: "If we allow its defacement, we allow our country's gradual decline," he said.

The opposite is actually the case: If we allow the erosion of our liberties and the weakening of the Bill of Rights to "protect" a symbol of state, we are more likely to see America go the way of failed empires. Once we ban one form of offensive expression, what is the next form to be the subject of a constitutional amendment?

"The most revolutionary facet of our Constitution," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposing the ban in 1997, "is that it confers its benefits not only on those who love this land but also on those who hate it."

Exactly. America and the lofty ideals behind it - the very ideals for which the flag stands - are strong enough to withstand mere symbolic assaults. The ability to tolerate, even embrace such dissent, however noxious it may seem to the vast majority of Americans, proves the truth of those freedoms the flag represents.

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