The Web site of the Citizens Flag Alliance, a group dedicating to protecting the American flag, reports that nationwide there have been just 33 incidents of flag desecration since 2000.
And yet the U.S. Senate, if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has his way, will vote next month – again – on a proposal to forward a constitutional amendment to the states to make it a crime to desecrate the flag. A vote on the flag amendment has been almost an annual occurrence in Congress since 1989 when the Supreme Court ruled that flag desecration amounts to free speech protected by the First Amendment. In order to pander to some key constituencies, several senators again want to revise a document that has been amended only 27 times in the history of the republic.
As we've said before, this is a solution in search of a problem. There has not been any widespread abuse of the American flag. And on those rare occasions when a flag has been desecrated, state laws and local ordinances often are used to rightly prosecute the offenders. In many cases, flag-burners can be charged with other violations, including theft, vandalism, destruction of property or disorderly conduct.
But to criminalize flag-burning as an act of free expression is wrong and contrary to those ideals expressed in the Bill of Rights. Yes, flag burning is offensive to most Americans. It shows disrespect to the flag and all that it stands for. But it could be argued that protesting and chanting outside a building where the president or a U.S. senator is speaking is offensive. Or that wearing a t-shirt with a coarse expression critical of the governor of Illinois is offensive. So far, though, no one is suggesting that those behaviors should be criminalized.
The flag desecration amendment has 58 co-sponsors in the Senate, an indication that it is short of the 67 votes required to approve the proposal and send it on to the states. That is good news to those who cherish the freedoms expressed in the Bill of Rights.