Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Flag and the First Amendment

Question:  I believe there should be a Constitutional Amendment against flag burning in protest.  What is your view of that?

Answer:  You refer to modern history, which has spawned a class of people who seek to provoke the public not by passive disregard of the flag, but by outright public desecration of the flag, as a display of contempt for our nation.  Examples, including flag burning, are as diverse as the human imagination and not worthy of civil elaboration: they are objectively incendiary.  They anger those who revere our country and who are humbled by the freedoms they cherish.  They outrage those like the authors who have a father/grandfather who was wounded in battle.  They inflame and callously trivialize those whose loved ones never came home, the honor and memory of who seem cheapened by this outrageous gesture.

Nevertheless, in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated prohibitions against flag desecration based on the First Amendment, which provides:  “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”  It held that the act of flag burning is a form of expression akin to speech, and its effectiveness in provoking the sentiment of the public was precisely the reason it could not be Constitutionally prohibited.  Justice Brennan observed that: “[w]e do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”

Should there be a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting flag burning?  Perhaps, but that is a political issue for another day.  Come what may, we merely observe that one cannot enact reverence, nor can one legislate wisdom:  stupidity is innate.  If one desecrates the symbol of that from which their right to do so is derived, it’s clear this is one who either has not given, or is incapable of giving that gesture much thought.  Still, it was Voltaire in his Essay on Tolerance that said:  "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”

We do not like this result…not at all.  However, when we encounter these village idiots, we pause only to thank God (for surely they have not) that we live in a country where they are not shot where they stand for their conduct.  We then shake our heads, smile, say “God Bless America” to ourselves, and move along.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Authority and References

Unbeknownst to most, the proper display of the Flag of the United State of America is something more than an idle show of patriotism.  Rather, it is the subject of federal law.  The “Flag Code” is a part of the United States Code, at 4 U.S.C. Section 1, but we will call those rules the Flag Code because it’s a whole lot easier.

Granted, these rules are largely unenforced, no doubt because any act of patriotism, even if literally “noncompliant,” should be lauded rather than punished.  Nevertheless, we believe that most Americans that have the dedication and pride to manifest their support for our democracy by display of our Standard, would self-regulate, were they armed with the knowledge by which to do so.

The Flag Code requires that “the flag of the Unites States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field.”  Modern flags, of course, have fifty stars, reflecting the admission of two additional states since the Flag Code’s enactment, namely Alaska and Hawaii.  This is prescribed by Section 2 of the Flag Code, which provides that “on the admission of a new State into the Union one star shall be added to the union of the flag; and such addition shall take effect on the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.”

Question:  I have a United States flag made before the admission of Hawaii and Alaska as states, and so only has 48 stars.  May I display a United States Flag that doesn’t comply with the federal law, but is proper at the time of its manufacture?

Answer:  Yes.  There is nothing wrong with display of a historic flag.  This is true not only of the “stars and bars” flags compliant at the time of their manufacture, but also of any historic flags which are chronologically accurate and emblematic of the United State of America (such as the “Don’t Tred on Me” flags of days gone by).  That said, any flag displayed in tribute to the United State of America should be done in a way consistent with federal law, and otherwise should be done consistent with the rules of flag etiquette, in honor of “the Republic for which it stands.” 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Flag Retirement

In keeping with the sanctity of our national standard, it is not to be trifled with at the end of its usefulness.  Take one of the observations of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; the greatest victories for freedom cannot be celebrated without solemn and reverent thought being given to their costs.  So too, as the emblem of our freedom, the flag is not deserving of respect and admiration during its useful life, only to be cast aside and thoughtlessly discarded when that useful life is over.  This is to say a flag, no matter how beaten, battered and useless, is never mere “trash.”

“The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”  Flag Code, Section 8(k). 

It you do not have the time or facilities to properly dispose of a flag of the United State of America (meaning its dignified destruction, not its mindless discard), please seek out those who do.  Most American Legion Posts regularly conduct a dignified flag burning ceremony, often on Flag Day.  You may also contact Boy Scout Troops in your area to do the same.  Granted, this sign of respect may take time you don’t have, but the freedom the flag of the United States of America memorializes is a tribute to those who gave their lives for you to fly your flag.  While flying the flag alone may provoke pride, it is the more general responsibility to the flag as an anthem, for all that it stands, that symbolizes your respect for all that we have as citizens of the United States of America.

Question:  I live in a city, and cannot burn anything (much less a flag) consistent with the laws of my municipality.  What do I do?

Answer:  The retirement of a flag of the United States of America is a solemn and reflective event.  It’s easy to buy a flag, and we would encourage you to accept responsibility for having done so, and retire it by destruction, the way it should be retired.  A fireplace, a barbeque, a picnic area or nearby campsite can provide the venue for this occasion, and a terribly worthwhile and reverent event for family and friends.  If you cannot or choose not to dispose of the flag properly, out of respect for those who gave you the right to make that choice, seek out someone who will.  A phone call or a chat with a neighbor asking assistance…that’s not too much to ask.