Great Debate: Should it be a crime to burn the American Flag?


Nina Welle '20 and Shannon Harzula '20, Staff Writers

Freedom of expression is a wonderful thing; it allows people to speak their minds without fear of governmental censorship or social sanction. Be that as it may, in a country where the national flag is promoted so boldly, it remains that it is considered socially and morally unacceptable to set it aflame, even if for the sake of the universal right to free speech.

This looks to be why both of 2016’s former presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have respectively claimed that flag-burning should be illegal. On November 29, Trump tweeted that “…there must be consequences– perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail,” while in 2005 Clinton sponsored a failed bill to punish flag burning. Despite the fact that the burning of the American flag is constitutional, it has been perceived as unjustifiable by many American citizens who view it as an act of rudeness, disrespect and hostility.

One such individual to oppose the burning of the American flag was TIME magazine’s Walter Isaacson. In 1989, Isaacson commented that “the patriotic mind recoils,” in regard to the court decision that constitutionalized allowed flag-burning to have the status of being constitutional, Texas v. Johnson.

Many patriots such as Isaacson are of the belief that the American flag symbolizes much more than the 50 states and original 13 colonies. For them, the American flag symbolizes the struggles that their people have had to go through in the interest of freedom. For example, suffrage and equal rights for both genders were not achieved without the tenacious effort by the nation’s women. Freedom from slavery, segregation and vicious racism were not achieved without the tremendous amount of struggle, sacrifice and death by African-Americans. For many, to lay waste to the American flag is akin laying waste to freedom of our nation.

“We get upset about everything here,” BHS freshman Thomas Welle says. “Of course flag-burning has to be one of those things.”

There are, in fact, a wide variety of alternatives to burning the U.S. flag when it comes to demonstrating one’s opinions. To protest peacefully and non-offensively, it is popular to use tools such as banners, posters, logos and slogans are widely used in order to express people’s beliefs, as well as schemes like strikes and petitions. In addition, demonstrators will also take parading with signs in city streets or to boycotting an offending corporation or service, though these approaches do not attract nearly as much attention as flag-burning classically will. These are all safe, socially acceptable methods.

To conclude, it not acceptable to desecrate the American flag, and doing so should result in criminalization. Defacing the flag due to dissatisfaction with government is thought of by many as an incursion on the pro-American meaning that its trademark stars and stripes have taken on throughout the years.

In 1989 in the case of Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor that burning the American Flag is a form of “symbolic speech” and is protected by the First Amendment.

Recently, President Elect Donald. J. Trump threatened this ruling by claiming that he may try to take this right away. On Tuesday November 29th Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps lost of citizenship or year in jail!”

The actions Trump is trying to take are unconstitutional and contradict the First Amendment. Many may view burning the American flag as disrespectful and anti-american, but there are many justifiable reasons for doing so. For instance, if a flag is old and worn out, burning the flag would be a proper way of disposal. Additionally, burning the American flag is a way in which many people protest and show how they feel about the current events happening in our country.

If Trump were to revoke the Flag Protection Act of 1989, he would be going against not only the right to Free Speech, but also the right to protest. The Supreme Court has stated that it would be unconstitutional of Trump to go through with his proposed law because he would be stripping American citizens of their given freedoms and incriminating them with no solid basis.

Many American citizens use symbolic speech to express how they feel, and if Trump takes that form of expression away then the constitution will not be holding up the promise it made to our country many years ago. Just because Trump may find burning the flag distasteful or incorrect doesn’t mean that many innocent people should lose citizenship or go to prison simply for expressing themselves should lose citizenship or go to prison. When you create an amendment that ensures that all citizens have the right to free speech and the right to protest, it never specifies exactly what the limits are behind that are.

When asking bernards students if they think they should lose citizenship or get jail time through expressing themselves by burning the flag, freshmen Meghan Connelly said, ¨Although we should be proud of the flag of our country we should be allowed to burn it since we have the right given by the first amendment, to express our own opinions.”

Freshmen Isabella Marks said, “Not only does the flag symbolize freedom for our country but it is a way many in the past and now express themselves, and if it is taken away from us then many may lose that right, a right given to us by the first amendment.”

Burning the flag is an act that is protected by the first amendment and should not be taken away from us. Just because burning the flag may not be approved by many does not mean it is illegal. For some, burning the American flag is a way to express themselves, and no one should have to feel like there citizenship is at risk for doing so.