To desecrate the flag is the most American thing that any citizen of this nation can do. For in this seemingly heinous act of unpatriotic fervor is the symbolism of why America is an exceptional nation. The Founding Fathers gave the American people the right to criticize and disrespect that very government which they built with their own sweat and blood. The flag that many hold dear would cease to represent a great nation if we were to turn our back on the very thing that made it great to begin with. In America, it is always important for every generation to be reminded that no symbol, object or individual is above ridicule or dismantling: not the president, not the White House, not even the American flag.
Those who are offended by the idea of damaging the flag have a true misunderstanding of what makes America truly great. What makes America great is the fact that any American can stand in front of the White House and burn that flag. However, in 1947, Congress passed a law prohibiting the desecration of the U.S. flag in the District of Columbia. Furthermore, the law also specified punishment for anyone who “knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States,” a punishment that included a fine and/or jail time. In the subsequent years that followed, nearly 48 states passed similar laws. Then in 1968, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, which expanded flag desecration laws to all 50 states and its territories.
For the next 31 years, these state and federal laws remained in effect until 1989 when one of the most historically significant free speech supreme court cases of the 20th century, a 5-4 vote struck down the Flag Protection Act of 1968 in Texas v. Johnson. This landmark case accomplished four pivotal feats. First off, it struck down the Flag Protection Act of 1968, and by using broad language, it deemed that expressive conduct and actions are forms of speech. Moreover, it adjudicated that no symbol or object in America can be held so sacred that its desecration or display can be protected by law, and finally, free speech or expressive conduct that results in indirect violence, does not hold the speaker liable.
The court’s dissenters argued that the federal government has a freer hand in prohibiting expressive conduct. Whereas the spoken and written words are clearly defined as being protected rights under the First Amendment, actions are not, especially actions which can be deemed harmful or an incitement of violence. In the protests surrounding the Texas v. Johnson case, protesters destroyed property, broke windows and spray-painted graffiti on private businesses. While the direct incitement of violence and lawlessness is not protected under the First Amendment, the court ultimately ruled that the desecration or display of a symbol or object is not a direct incitement of violence.
It is understandable why some people would push for legislation to protect the American flag. These advocates see flag desecration as a degradation of our troops, and by burning our flag, you are dishonoring all those American soldiers who have fought and died for the country. To those who have had family members killed in combat fighting under the American flag, it is important that we understand the pain, sorrow and frustration that these victims feel when they see protesters defacing the flag that their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters have died for.
But just because someone is offended does not make them necessarily right. The right to be offended is just as sacred as the right to be offensive. Those who are offended by the desecration of the American flag should be offended; it is their right to be offended and their right to speak out publicly against their alleged offenders. But nonetheless, at the end of the day, the offenders must still be able to burn that flag, for to take away that right would be to rob the flag of what makes it truly great.
Unlike most nations, the American people are not bound by ethnic homogeneity; instead, we are bound by a shared set of principles and ideas to which this nation was founded on. We are to always strive for a more perfect union, and to always work towards the promises of the constitution, even when the nation’s laws do not reflect those promises. Even when the truth of our shared equality is self-evident but not expressed through law, it is the promise of the American people to continue the fight through civil disobedience to pursue these inalienable rights.