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A Misplaced Priority - Media Relations


N. Lee Cooper President, American Bar Association

In the wake of the recent elections, both parties have been talking about putting differences aside and beginning work on a consensus agenda of popular policy. Sounds good in theory, doesn't it. But focusing on what is popular too often can lead to disturbing consequences.

Once again Congress has forgotten its duty to the nation and is considering a proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to outlaw desecration of the American flag -- the very same amendment it has rejected twice before.

Policy decisions today are too often based on public opinion polls, with too little thought being given to the broad impact of the policies. This amendment is a good example -- polls show that a vast majority of Americans want to protect the flag, until they are told that the amendment would mark the first time the government has limited freedom of speech and freedom of expression. As a veteran, I want to protect the flag. But popular support, or lack of it, is really irrelevant.

At the core of the debate is one simple fact: a flag desecration amendment is simply not a national priority, nor should it be. There have been no more than three incidents of flag burning over the past five years. Surely our nation is not so imperiled by three such instances that we must alter our basic system of freedoms and liberties.

The issue here is not love of or reverence for the American flag. Americans who oppose the amendment are not against Old Glory or American values. I am a veteran, and was proud to serve under the flag. But I object to "protecting" the flag as an object at the expense of the freedoms it symbolizes. The proposed amendment would limit one of the most cherished, and internationally envied aspects of our liberty -- our ability to express our frustration and distress with government, through words or symbolic speech, no matter how wrong or misguided our views may be. Dissent is as American as the flag itself.

We do not need this amendment. It has been offered time and again only because politicians assume that it is the popular thing to do, then defeated when they realize it is an irresponsible thing to do.

The American flag will survive rare eruptions of dramatic protest. It will not survive, however, if the freedoms it protects disappear with a misguided constitutional amendment.