Flag "Protection" Amendment Considered in Full Committee; ACLU Says Bill Threatens Freedoms Embodied By Stars-and-Stripes

May 21, 2003 12:00 am

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Flag “Protection” Amendment Considered in Full Committee; ACLU Says Bill Threatens Freedoms Embodied By Stars-and-Stripes

Contact: Media@dcaclu.org

WASHINGTON – Saying that free expression and the tolerance of dissent are the very principles for which the American flag stands, the American Civil Liberties Union today strongly urged Congress to reject the recently reintroduced “Flag Protection Amendment,” which would, in practice, betray those fundamental ideals.

“Our value as a country lies not in the physical cloth of the flag, but in our commitment to democracy that that cloth represents,” said Terri Ann Schroeder, an ACLU Legislative Representative. “If we move to ban unpopular speech and criminalize dissent, we would be betraying the principles and ideals for which the flag flies.”

The “Flag Protection Amendment,” as it’s being called this time around, would limit the First Amendment to allow Congress to criminalize any physical alteration of the American flag. It would be the first change to the Constitution restricting basic freedoms since Prohibition and one that has been consistently rejected by the Supreme Court and the Congress since proponents began pushing the measure in the late 1980s.

The amendment will be considered today in the full House Judiciary Committee.

Opposition to the amendment remains ideologically broad, with conservatives, moderates and liberals fearful of the long-term implications for basic American freedoms if the amendment were ratified. And, although some prominent veterans groups have endorsed the amendment, a sizeable and growing number of veterans – of all generations and from all major military engagements of the past 90 years – have been vocal in their principled opposition to the bill.

“Free expression, especially the right to dissent with the policies of the government, is one important element — if not the cornerstone — of our form of government that has greatly enhanced the stability, prosperity and strength of our country,” Gary May, a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs in combat to a landmine explosion, said during testimony before a Judiciary Committee panel earlier this month.

Notable figures in the Bush Administration have also expressed opposition to the amendment. “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,” said retired general and current Secretary of State Colin Powell in a 1999 letter. “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.”

Flag burning remains an isolated and rare occurrence, even with the resurgence in political protest prompted by the war in Iraq. Opponents of the measure are also wary of its inevitable unintended consequences, which could, given its imprecise wording, include the waste of tax dollars on unnecessary and politically motivated prosecutions.

More information on the proposed constitutional amendment can be found at:

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