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News Releases - Division of Media Relations and Communication Services - American Bar Association - Law - Legal

American Bar Association - News Release

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 themselves.”

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 1970-1973