We Are Strong Enough for This

By Daily Editorials

December 7, 2016 4 min read

Trying to keep up with all the controversial tweets emitted from Donald Trump's Twitter account is like playing a 1980s arcade video game — it's a target-rich environment that threatens to overwhelm you.

One tweet in particular, though, sparked a notably intense firestorm by resurrecting an old, though still unsettled, debate regarding the burning of the American flag.

Prior to 1989, 48 states and the federal government had statutes that prohibited flag-burning. That year, and again in a similar case in 1990, the Supreme Court overturned those laws on First Amendment grounds, ruling they were unconstitutional restrictions on free speech. The majority in both decisions included the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who for years afterward defended his position by arguing that although he, like many Americans, found flag-burning offensive, the Constitution allowed it.

"If it were up to me," he said in a speech at Princeton University in 2015, "I would put in jail every sandal-wearing, scruffy-bearded weirdo who burns the American flag. But I am not king."

Indeed, Scalia often pointed out the First Amendment was created specifically to allow the kind of speech that tyrants sought to oppress.

Nevertheless, public polls over the years have shown varying degrees of substantial support, anywhere from 45 percent to 73 percent, for making flag-burning illegal. Congress has repeatedly proposed new laws or constitutional amendments to punish flag-burning (Hillary Clinton in 2005 co-sponsored a bill that criminalized the act). These measures have easily passed the House on bipartisan votes but failed to pass the Senate — once by a single vote.

Trump's tweet took that populist sentiment to a new level with its extraordinary and misguided, punishment for flag-burners. Imprisoning political protesters is what dictators do (the recently deceased Fidel Castro is a timely reminder of such tyranny). Per a Supreme Court ruling in 1958, stripping them of their citizenship is unconstitutional.

It's easy to understand why so many find flag-burning deeply offensive. Old Glory is a powerful symbol of freedom, one for which countless Americans have sacrificed. Vandalizing the flag is seen as disrespecting the country and dishonoring the patriots who have kept it.

But those founding ideals that we revere and for which each flag stands are what make America strong enough to allow that form of protest.

Many saw Trump's election as a reaction in part to politically correct culture, such as college students demanding "safe spaces" to shelter them from hearing ideas and opinions they find offensive. Opponents of flag-burning must not succumb to the same temptation to outlaw objectionable speech. The outspoken president-elect should be encouraging everyone to be similarly free in their opinions, instead of threatening punitive measures against those with whom he disagrees.

REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD

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