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The Flag Should Not Infringe on the First Amendment

By Gene C. Gerard  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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When the Senate returns from its summer break next month it will consider a constitutional amendment to ban desecrating the flag. In June the House of Representatives, in a vote of 286 to 130, passed a resolution that would create a new amendment to the Constitution allowing, "The Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States. "

Efforts to protect the flag, at the expense of the First Amendment right to free speech and expression, have been a common occurrence during wartime. In the Civil War, when Union military commanders took control of Confederate areas they would prohibit the desecration of the flag. In 1862 New Orleans became the first Confederate city to be occupied by Union forces. General Benjamin Butler was commander of the Union army for southern Louisiana. He issued an order that no flag other than the national flag could be displayed, and that "the American [flag] be treated with the utmost deference and respect by all persons, under pain of severe punishment. "

William Mumford tested this order when he removed the flag atop the New Orleans branch of the U.S. Mint. He dragged the flag through the streets before tearing it into pieces and handing it out to his fellow Confederates. General Butler had him arrested and subsequently hanged for his act of desecration.

Congress violated the First Amendment while attempting to protect the flag during World War I. In 1917 Congress passed a law making it a misdemeanor to publicly desecrate the flag in the nation 's capital. A year later, Congress passed a law requiring the termination of any federal employee who "when the United States is at war an abusive or violent manner criticizes ...the flag of the United States. " Many state legislatures also passed flag desecration laws.

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Congress passed the first flag desecration law during the Vietnam War, in the wake of anti-war demonstrations. In 1968 Congress passed the Federal Flag Desecration Law that criminalized anyone who "knowingly casts contempt upon any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling upon it. " Shortly thereafter Sydney Street burned a flag, telling the crowd who gathered around him as the flag burned that " ...we don 't need no [expletive] flag. " He was arrested and convicted under the new law.

A year later the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in the case of Street v. New York. The Court didn 't specifically address Street 's burning of the flag. However, it ruled that his verbal comments were protected under the First Amendment right to free speech.

The Supreme Court addressed constitutional issues concerning burning the flag in 1989. In the case of Texas v. Johnson, the Court ruled on a Texas law that criminalized the mistreatment of the flag, to include setting it on fire. The Supreme Court upheld a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that the law was unconstitutional. This effectively defined burning the flag as a protected form of free speech.

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Congress was offended by this ruling and later that year passed the Flag Protection Act. This legislation made a criminal out of anyone who "knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any U.S. flag. " The Supreme Court responded to the new law in 1990 in the case of U.S. v. Eichman. The Court found that the act violated the First Amendment right to free speech and expression.

The current effort by Congress to pass a flag desecration amendment is largely attributable to the war in Iraq. Supporters hope that at least 67 Senators, the two-thirds majority needed to forward the amendment to the states for ratification, will be too fearful to vote against it and run the risk of being labeled "unpatriotic. " Or worse yet, "un-American. " But the Senate should reject it.

The flag represents all that is great about America. It symbolizes our rights and freedoms. As such, it should be treated with respect. But it is merely a symbol. To outlaw the right to free speech and expression, especially regarding desecration of the flag, would be a mockery of everything the flag stands for.

Gene C. Gerard taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years at various colleges in the Southwest and is a contributing author to the forthcoming book "Americans at War," by Greenwood Press. His previous articles have appeared in Intervention Magazine, The Free Press, The Modern Tribune, Political Affairs Magazine, Alternative Press Review, and OpEdNews.Com. He can be contacted at


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Rob Kall is an award winning journalist, inventor, software architect, connector and visionary. His work and his writing have been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC, the HuffingtonPost, Success, Discover and other media. He's given talks and workshops to Fortune 500 execs and national medical and psychological organizations, and pioneered first-of-their-kind conferences in Positive Psychology, Brain Science and Story. He hosts some of the world's smartest, most interesting and powerful people on his Bottom Up Radio Show, and founded and publishes one of the top Google- ranked progressive news and opinion sites,

more detailed bio: 

Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind.  Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives  one person at a time was too slow, he founded which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big)  to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project. 

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