Efforts to protect the flag at the expense of the First Amendment have been a common occurrence during wartime. In the Civil War, when Union military commanders took control of Confederate areas they prohibited 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 twice 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 nations capital. A year later, Congress passed a law requiring the termination of any federal employee who when the United States is at war in an abusive or violent manner criticizes the flag of the United States. Many state legislatures also passed flag desecration laws.
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 after learning that a prominent civil rights activist had been shot. Street told the crowd who gathered around him as it burned, we dont 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 didnt specifically address Streets burning of the flag. However, it ruled that his verbal comments were protected under the First Amendment right to free speech.
Congress was offended by this ruling and later that year passed the Flag Protection Act. The 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. In a five to four ruling 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, which include such strange bedfellows as Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, insist that its needed in order to show respect to veterans. They hope that 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 un-American during an election year. But the Senate should reject it.
The flag represents all that is noble about America. It symbolizes our rights and freedoms, and it should be treated with respect. But its merely a symbol. To outlaw the right to free speech and expression, especially regarding desecration of the flag, would be a mockery of the freedoms and liberties our veterans fought for and defended.