23 June 2005

The flag-burning amendment is un-American


Once again, the US Congress is considering this Bad Idea That Just Won't Die — a constitutional amendment to restrict free speech by banning flag-burning. It's already passed the House, which isn't too surprising, because the house has, for some time now, contained more than its fair share of vicious, thoughtless people. But the Senate may be only one vote away from approving this, too, in which case it would be up to the states to stop this.

Lots of smart, well-respected people have said a lot of great stuff on the free speech side of things, and I'll quote some of them below, because it's easy.

But I'd like to look at another aspect of this misbegotten amendment. Here's the proposed text:
The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.
This means that they could, for instance, prohibit Bush from signing more flags. But what about flag burning, which is the main impetus for this amendment?

Well, I used to be a Boy Scout, and one thing I learned there was that the proper way to respectfully dispose of a flag was — burning it. So any law regarding burning of flags is going to have to distinguish "bad" flag-burning from "good". This might seem easy enough in some cases. But suppose a group of people organizes, and each of them burns a ragged old flag in their front yard at 3pm on Sunday, and watches quietly and respectfully while it burns. Is that OK? I think most everyone will say yes. Now suppose that they're all wearing shirts that say "I'm disposing of this flag because it was besmirched by Bill Clinton". Still OK? I'm going to guess that many — I hope not most — supporters of the amendment would say yes, because it's being done respectfully and besides, they agree about Clinton. But replace "Bill Clinton" with "George W. Bush" and I think all amendment supporters will say it's an act worthy of punishment.

And there's the biggest danger. What's going to be punished is not the act of burning a flag; what will be punished are the thoughts you're having as you do it. Nothing could be more totalitarian. Nothing could be more anti-American.

But I'm straying into that free speech territory I said I would leave to others:
Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.— William Orville Douglas

We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people. — John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word; and not just comforting platitudes too mundane to need protection. — Colin Powell

Free speech, exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where people are themselves free. — Theodore Roosevelt

If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. — Noam Chomsky

You have not converted a man because you have silenced him. — John Morley

Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself. — Salman Rushdie

I would rather starve and rot and keep the privilege of speaking the truth as I see it, than of holding all the offices that capital has to give from the presidency down. — Henry Brooks Adams

The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. — John Adams

Letting a maximum number of views be heard regularly is not just a nice philosophical notion. It is the best way any society has yet discovered to detect maladjustments quickly, to correct injustices, and to discover new ways to meet our continuing stream of novel problems that rise in a changing environment. — Ben Bagdikian

Thought that is silenced is always rebellious. Majorities, of course, are often mistaken. This is why the silencing of minorities is necessarily dangerous. Criticism and dissent are the indispensable antidote to major delusions. — Alan Barth

What's right with America is a willingness to discuss what's wrong with America. — Harry C. Bauer

We are more especially called upon to maintain the principles of free discussion in case of unpopular sentiments or persons, as in no other case will any effort to maintain them be needed. — Edward Beecher

There is tonic in the things that men do not love to hear. Free speech is to a great people what the winds are to oceans...and where free speech is stopped miasma is bred, and death comes fast. — Rev. Henry Ward Beecher

Purveyors of political correctness will, in the final analysis, not even allow others their judgments... They celebrate “difference,” but they will not allow people truly to be different — to think differently, and to say what they think. — Mark Berley

The first people totalitarians destroy or silence are men of ideas and free minds. — Isaiah Berlin

In order to get the truth, conflicting arguments and expression must be allowed. There can be no freedom without choice, no sound choice without knowledge. — David K. Berninghausen

What finally emerges from the ‘clear and present danger’ cases is a working principle that the substantive evil must be extremely serious and the degree of imminence extremely high before utterances can be punished…It must be taken as a command of the broadest scope that explicit language, read in the context of a liberty-loving society, will allow. — Justice Hugo L. Black

All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance – unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion, have the full protection of the guarantees [of the First Amendment]. — Justice William J. Brennan

If there is a bedrock principle of the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. — Justice William J. Brennan

It is sometimes said that toleration should be refused to the intolerant. In practice this would destroy it... The only remedy for dogmatism and lies is toleration and the greatest possible liberty of expression. — Joyce Cary

Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of a Nation, must begin by subduing Freedom of Speech... Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech... — Cato

You make men love their government and their country by giving them the kind of government and the kind of country that inspire respect and love; a country that is free and unafraid, that lets the discontented talk in order to learn the causes of their discontent and end those causes, that refuses to impel men to spy on their neighbors, that protects its citizens vigorously from harmful acts while it leaves the remedies for objectionable ideas to counter-argument and time. — Zecharian Chafee, Jr.

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. — H. L. Mencken