Seventeen Dangerous Words
By Alfred P. Carlton Jr., President
American Bar Association
Among the most memorable images of the liberation of Iraq were
those of Iraqi citizens tearing down the symbols of their oppression.
Watching people destroy the countless statues, murals and posters
of Saddam Hussein spread throughout the country was a powerful
reminder that freedom and dissent are invaluable commodities
that free peoples should never take for granted.
For decades, Iraq’s national icons were symbols of oppression
and suffering, tools of subjugation used to instill fear. By
contrast, our own national symbols have stood for more than
two centuries as monuments to liberty and beacons of hope for
freedom-loving people throughout the world. Our respect for
those symbols and the values they represent is as strong as
our contempt for those who would limit freedom.
This is precisely why in America—unlike Saddam Hussein’s
Iraq—people are free to protest authority and even to
use the physical destruction of the symbols of that authority
to communicate a political message. Sadly, it is this freedom
that a constitutional amendment authorizing Congress to prohibit
the physical desecration of the American flag would deny.
And once again, as so many times before, Congress is considering
precisely such a measure. The amendment, just 17 words long,
would be the first to limit the freedoms enshrined in the Bill
of Rights. It should be rejected again by the Senate.
Let me be clear. Without question I support the sentiment behind
this effort. As a veteran, and as an American, I love and am
deeply proud of the flag. It is the physical representation
of both the rights enumerated in the Constitution and the blood
shed to preserve them, a cherished symbol of hope that flies
even more proudly in times of war and after terrible events,
like those of September 11, 2001.
But it is just that, a symbol. No symbol—regardless of
its value—should ever be held in higher regard than the
principle it represents. As former Sen. John Glenn testified
regarding a previous attempt to pass the amendment, “It
would be a hollow victory indeed if we preserved the symbol
of our freedoms by chipping away at those fundamental freedoms
Our founding fathers recognized this and, as a result, saw
no need to afford the flag special protections. To the contrary,
they specifically crafted a Bill of Rights that limited the
government's ability to restrict the fundamental rights of the
individual. Foremost among those rights is the right to free
speech, the very foundation of our democratic society.
Supporters of the amendment argue that burning or desecrating
the flag is not a form of speech, but we all know this is not
true. Political expression often takes the form of images and
actions. A band of patriots dumping tea into Boston Harbor,
a single student standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square,
an African-American woman refusing to give up her seat on a
bus—each conveys a powerful message without requiring
a single word.
Indeed, political dissent is often most powerfully expressed
through peaceful acts of protest. And, like it or not, the government
may not prohibit such expressions simply because the majority
finds the means of that expression offensive. As the great Supreme
Court Justice Hugo Black once intoned, the First Amendment “provides,
in simple words, that ‘Congress shall make no law . .
. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ I
read 'no law . . . abridging' to mean no law abridging.”
These rights—the freedoms of speech and expression—are
precisely what tyrants fear most. As George Washington once
said, “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant
of rapid growth.” This, in part, explains why acts like
flag burning so seriously offend tyrants like Saddam Hussein.
But our nation is different. One of our most enduring strengths
is that fact that, in America, unity and patriotism are fully
compatible with the freedom to protest against authority, and
even to defile the preeminent symbol of that authority. While
such an expressive act is offensive to most of us, the fact
that it is tolerated gives this nation great strength.
By eroding the freedoms that make such protests possible, the
flag desecration amendment would fundamentally undermine the
foundation upon which our society rests. What could be more
dangerous than that?
Alfred P. Carlton Jr., president of the American Bar Association,
was an officer in the U.S. Air Force Medical Service Corps from