CHE BELLO shivers…

January 27, 2010 at 12:04 pm (Uncategorized)

A chilly hello from Ithaca, NY, or, frozen hell! The semester has started for me (if one can call only three classes a semester), so my blogging has been even more infrequent than before. I’m working on that. But today I wanted to ask you guys a Constitutional law question: how do you feel about the burning of the American flag? I’m (re)reading Texas v. Johnson, the 1989 Supreme Court case, and I’m kind of shocked at how viscerally people reacted to seeing Johnson burn an American flag. Maybe I’m just supremely unpatriotic (I mean, I have the right to be since I’m treated as a lesser being in my own country), but does it really make your blood boil to see a flag being burned? Ultimately the Court ruled that Johnson’s expressive conduct rose to the level of speech, and that no legitimate governmental interest weighed heavily enough to abridge his First Amendment right, a decision with which I agree, but it strikes me as ridiculous that Texas would even pass a law against flag burning in the first place. So, what are your thoughts?



  1. josh said,

    I never understood why peepz get so frazzle-dazzled about burning the flag. Blah blah blah…it’s a symbol of our country and wah wah wah…chut uh! I feel like there are much more anti-patriotic tingz one can do then burn a piece of fabric. Like how about not vote which it seems like a lot of people feel too busy to be bothered with.

    I think that old folk get hard thinking about the ways that the younger generation doesn’t respect Uncle Sam, and then sit around and bitch to no end during the commercial breaks of “The Price is Right” about it.

    • David said,

      I couldn’t agree more — not voting offends me so much more than does flag burning. It’s one thing to express disagreement with a system you participate in, but an entirely different and reprehensible thing to refuse to take part in it and then criticize it left and right. Also, if the problem is using the flag as a symbol of something other than national unity, etc., why do those same people think it’s appropriate to misuse other people’s symbols (I’m thinking the cross, the rainbow flag on “God hates fags!” signs, etc.)

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Chris D. said,

    I think it has to do with the cult of Iconography. It frustrates me whenever I hear stories of people risking their lives for something that serves only as a symbol. This kind of irrational zeal happens with national flags as well as religious items. Symbols have their place, but ultimately they are just symbols and embody no magic.

    I don’t think desecration of the American flag should be treated any differently than any other symbol by our court system. However, there may be good reasons to prohibit burning _anything_ in certain situations, if it causes an undue risk of danger to the public. My concern is more about the fire than the flag. Given normal public safety laws, and laws against inciting violence, I don’t think any we need special flag desecration laws.

    I prefer reasoned philosophical debate to inflammatory protests, for most matters. However, I do appreciate the power of protest, even if it makes me uncomfortable.

    • David said,

      Just to make it clear, the Court has long held that First Amendment rights don’t extend when the speech will necessarily result in physical danger to persons or property. Nobody was physically injured or threatened in the Johnson case. I wouldn’t argue with a public burning ban, etc., but the Texas Penal Code section under which Johnson was charged made no mention of burning; he was charged with desecrating a venerated object, a charge which the Court found was only brought for the symbolic content of his action, the very thing which raises it to the level of being protected by the First Amendment. Interestingly, the Court did not declare the Penal Code section unconstitutional, just Johnson’s conviction under it. Another fine example of judicial restraint which the Supremes use to keep themselves from having to decide Constitutional issues if they can be avoided.(For some interesting historic background, the incident happened at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas when Reagan was renominated. Johnson’s rhetoric was actually pretty catchy: “New Patriotism vs. no patriotism.”)

      To your point about preferring rational debate, I agree to some extent. I think that symbolic, presentational actions are necessary to begin debate in a society where dissent is so thoroughly discredited. Talking at someone is often not the best way to bring them to a place where they’re willing to engage in reasoned argument with you — that is, a burning flag is harder to ignore than just a verbal utterance of disapproval of government policies, etc.

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