Flag Amendment Passes in the House, Free Speech Takes Back Seat to Politics

Today, the House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment on flag desecration by a vote of 286 to 130. If the amendment were passed by the Senate and ratified by the states, it would be the first time in our nation’s history that the Bill of Rights has been amended to restrict Americans’ fundamental liberties.

"Free speech is at the heart of America’s strength,” said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. “Our commitment to free speech is not tested by those with whom we agree, but by those with whom we disagree most strongly. Outlawing use of the flag in political protest would not honor the flag, it would weaken the flag’s power as a symbol of freedom.”

Neas said flag desecration occurs infrequently and that those rare incidents of flag desecration are typically punishable under public burning, theft or destruction of public property statutes. This amendment, in direct conflict with the fundamental principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights, only serves to curb those very few instances where flag desecration is used as political speech.

Neas noted that support for freedom of expression and opposition to the flag amendment cuts across partisan lines. Opponents of efforts to amend the Constitution in this way include Sen. Mitch McConnell, conservative columnist Cal Thomas, and decorated veterans. In fact, one of the most eloquent statements in opposition to a constitutional amendment restricting use of the flag was made by General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, who opposed an amendment in 1999 with these words: “The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous. I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will be flying proudly long after they have slunk away.”

"This amendment’s sponsors are dishonoring the flag by using it as a divisive political weapon,” said Neas. “They want to create the opportunity for unfair attacks on the patriotism of anyone who takes a stand for the First Amendment. This amendment is a cynical distraction from civil liberties, the war, the economy, the treatment of our nation’s veterans, and more. The Senate should reject this irresponsible amendment and the divisive political strategy behind it.”

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