President Donald Trump recently responded to legislation for a constitutional amendment that would ban the desecration of the U.S. flag by giving a thumbs-up on Twitter and calling it “a no brainer!”
Yes, this issue is a no-brainer. But not in the way Trump means. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The backstory is this: On June 14, coinciding with Flag Day, Sens. Steve Daines and Kevin Cramer, both Republicans, introduced an amendment to ban any desecration of the U.S. banner.
“The American Flag is a symbol of freedom — and it should always be protected,” Daines tweeted.
Yes on both counts. The American flag is indeed a glorious waving symbol of freedom. And this glorious waving symbol of freedom should indeed always be protected.
But not with regulation.
Not with the full force of government.
And those who advocate for such are just plain wrong.
“All in for Senator Steve Daines as he proposes an Amendment for a strong BAN on burning our American Flag,” Trump tweeted. “A no brainer!”
And then he tweeted this: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”
Conservative favorite Candace Owens wrote similarly.
“If I were President,” Owens tweeted, “the punishment for burning the U.S. flag would be the renunciation of citizenship. No jail time, no fine — simply one year to liquidate your assets and get the hell out of our country. In exchange, we’d extend citizenship to a hardworking LEGAL immigrant.”
Should we also ban desecration of the Bible because, after all, the Ten Commandments were the root of America’s judicial system? Because, after all, it was the Judeo-Christian teachings of this book that helped forge America’s government? Certainly, if the flag stands for America’s freedoms, then the Bible stands for America’s foundation.
Following this path could prove rocky, paved with pebbles of unintended consequence.
Here’s the reality check, courtesy a 2017 headline from Reuters: “China considers three-year jail terms for disrespecting national anthem, flag.”
If China be for it, maybe America should be against it.
Logically speaking, burning the American flag is an act of individual freedom — the very same type of individual freedom our form of government makes clear is God-given, not government granted.
Yes, it’s offensive.
Freaking outrageously offensive — and not just to the brave men and women of the military who’ve fought and died, and who continue to fight and die, for the very principles of freedom the flag represents. It’s offensive to any American who loves America, to any citizen who sees this country as the exceptional light on the hill, as the beacon of hope, bastion of freedom, frontier of all that’s great — and it’s offensive to any would-be citizen who aspires to one day come here, legally, and live the dream, too.
But offensiveness is not the standard by which government, under our First Amendment, under our system of natural law, has the right to intervene.
“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” — yes?
Fact is, nothing says political dissent like a burning flag. Nothing says freedom of expression like an angry mob ripping an American flag to shreds and scattering the pieces to the wind. Nothing says, hey government, listen to me, I’ve got a grievance that needs redressing, like a stomped-on U.S. flag.
These flag desecrators may be ignorant scum.
But in America, ignorant scum have the same First Amendment, God-given rights as the non-ignorant and non-scum. Besides, isn’t it better to know who the ignorant scum are — to let the full rays of sunlight expose their ignorance and hate? Easier to fight in light than dark. Right?
And this is how the founders would see it.
“Freedom of speech,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”
Yep. And freedom of political speech was of particular importance to framers.
Thomas Jefferson vehemently opposed the Sedition Act of 1798, allowing anyone deemed by government a threat — as determined, in part, by the publishing of politically themed “false, scandalous or malicious writing” — to be deported, fined or thrown in jail. So did James Madison. And even though it was another founder, John Adams, who signed the sedition bill into law, it proved his downfall. The people hated it. Jefferson made a campaign issue out of it, calling out the government for trying to rule with “a rod of iron,” and ultimately, winning the White House from the two-term hopeful Adams.
Flag burning is today’s equivalent of the Sedition Act.
We cannot let the emotions of patriotism blind us to the duties of being a patriot.
America is either land of the free, or it’s not. How we treat the flag burners, in all their hate-filled, hateful, shameful glory, will determine where we stand in that equation.
• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @ckchumley.
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