Flag Burning Is the Ultimate Expression of Free Speech
Following the shocking and unforgettable result of the 2016 presidential election, thousands throughout the country were moved to peacefully take to the streets and make their message clear: they do not stand for Donald Trump.
In Utah, protests were being organized before the final votes were even tallied, and they continued, without pause, for the entirety of the week. On Nov. 10, an estimated 2,000 Utahans marched to the Capitol chanting, “We reject the president-elect,” and sporting an impressive variety of signs. Signs that bore sentiments like “Build a Wall Around Trump,” “F— Donald Trump” and “Queers Bash Back.”
A notable moment was on the capitol steps when a young woman raised an American flag and set it aflame, keeping it in the air until it was too hot for her to hold. At this point, she dropped the charred remnants and left them on the cold stone steps.
The backlash was swift and severe. When social media learned of the incident, hundreds of furious commenters voiced their thoughts on the ethics of flag burning. “What an absolutely disgusting person!” one Facebook commenter said, in a comment that received over 650 up-votes. “This girl ought to be ashamed and charged for treason.”
“People like this shouldn’t be allowed to live here at all!” wrote another. “Take away their citizenship and send them to a 3rd world country and then let’s see what they have to complain about!”
Another commenter said he hoped this picture would follow the flag-burner for all her life, preventing her from finding employment or living a successful life.
When the woman’s identity was discovered, she began receiving up to 40 death threats an hour, according to an interview with Fox 13. “Lots of really negative, hateful emails, hateful messages and death threats,” she said. “People telling me to leave the country, say I should be imprisoned, un-American.”
But is burning a flag un-American? No, it’s not. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Not only is burning an American flag an expression of freedom of speech, it is the ultimate one. It is a monumentally American act.
Should setting a 50-starred, 13-striped flag on fire be punishable by prison or deportation? The short answer is no. It is entirely legal and constitutional to burn a flag. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that doing so is an action protected under the First Amendment. Although flag protection amendments have been proposed — even as recently as 2006 — they have never passed with a majority vote. The law of the land says flag burning is okay.
This is all of secondary importance, though. It may be legal to do something, but does that mean it is ethical to? Only the most morally relativistic of us would think so. Legality aside, however, there is a strong moral argument for an uninhibited right to desecrate political symbols like the American flag.
Like refusing to stand for the national anthem — another controversy — flag burning is an act of political resistance and defiance. It is a symbolic way of demonstrating refusal to comply with the actions, agendas or beliefs of the state. Limiting one’s ability to burn, smear or deface a symbol of the state ultimately limits one’s ability to criticize the state, a dangerous move away from democracy.
In context of the election, burning a flag is a repudiation of the perceived bigotry, authoritarianism and demagoguery of President-elect Trump. Shouldn’t a strong stance, however crude or impolite, against such ideas be seen as a good thing? It should be tolerated, at the very least.
A compelling argument against flag burning is that it is disrespectful to the women and men who have served the country. This is because, for many, the flag is seen first and foremost as a symbol of the United States military and the freedoms that soldiers enable U.S. citizens to have. Simply put, burning a flag is seen as undermining and insulting those who have fought for our right to do so.
It may be true that the flag is a strong military symbol. This is not all it is, however. The flag is also symbol of the United States as a whole. It serves the same purpose as a president — to embody and represent the county. To disrespect one is to disrespect the other. Burning a flag is an indirect way of challenging the head of state — bringing us back to Trump. More than a means of insulting soldiers or traditions, it is a method of resistance.
There is justification for feeling upset seeing an American flag, a sacred, sentimental symbol to many, being desecrated or disrespected. There is not justification, however, for wishing illness or death on a peaceful person making a legal, constitutional and morally motivated statement. Burning a flag may an inflammatory act, but it is not an extreme one. What would be extreme, on the other hand, would be to jail, exile or blacklist someone for doing so. Extremism of any kind is best avoided.
No Way to Rally People for a Cause
Protests have been forming all over the country and the world, with people taking a stand against United States President-elect Donald Trump. Peaceful protests can be effective in facilitating change, but actively creating contention will get you nowhere. A majorly controversial part of these protests has been the burning of the American flag. Although it is legal and your right to do so, this action will not help your cause. In fact, it will do the opposite. People will be less likely to listen to what you are trying to support if you are disrespecting something they hold dear to their hearts.
The point of a protest is to get your voice heard, to create change and to have opponents see your point of view. If you are taking the American flag and burning it to make a point, you only create more distance between your movement and the people you want to have listen to you. You will not get any endorsement of your position by degrading what many Americans believe represents the honor and dignity of this country. It is a symbol. It can be compared to killing a bald eagle in the name of your protest — another American symbol — and people will react angrily. They will not be willing to listen to you.
Protesters have recently burned the flag to express their anger toward our current administration. By burning the flag, they’re attempting to generate enough drama for people to take them seriously. But this isn’t a respectable way to gain legitimate attention. It seems like the people burning the flag don’t understand the true symbolism it represents. If you don’t understand the significance of burning the flag, you should not be doing it. There are many other ways to spread your vision for change.
I have heard the argument that symbolism is not as important as civil rights. I agree with this, but burning the flag isn’t going to correct problems or cause change. What burning the flag for protest purposes will do is create more anger, more separation and more negative thinking toward your goals. Protesting shouldn’t be geared against America the country, or the symbol of the good it represents, but against the current people and policies with whom you disagree. Burning a flag in the name of protest is like protesting against the traditional Democratic Republic that has served as the foundation of one of the greatest countries in the world.
What it comes down to is knowledge and life experiences. I would like to ask people who are using flag burning as activism if they have ever seen a killed-in-action soldier’s casket come home from overseas. Have they witnessed the casket coming off the plane with an American flag draped over it, as the family stands there wishing they could see their son or daughter one last time? Have they been to a military funeral when a folded American flag is handed to a mother who just had to bury her child? Have they watched a widow try to explain to her child why Dad isn’t coming home? Imagine going up to that parent or widow and telling them you want to burn that flag to protest a president you don’t particularly like. You want to take that flag, which now represents their dead child or spouse, and burn it. You want to burn that flag and openly protest because of rights their dead child/spouse, and others like them fought to protect.
As a veteran, the flag represents something more to me because of the deaths of the many it represents. To many Vietnam, Korea, WWII, Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, the flag was and is a symbol of hope that the wars won’t last forever, and that active soldiers will be able to return home to their country with honor. No matter your stance on the military or on war, many men and women have died to protect your right to protest. In their place is now a triangular blue field of stars visible through a wooden shadow box.
The question doesn’t concern so much whether you have the right to burn the American flag, because you do. The question is, what is your point in burning the flag? Peaceful protests are wonderful. Standing up for what you believe in is part of what America is all about. But if you are attempting to get the respectful attention of those opposing you, why create more anger? If you want your voice to be heard, come up with ways for people to listen to you without stirring up anger and resentment. That is the only way to protest respectfully and effectively in our America. That is the way to create change.