By Ryan Lau | USA
It has come to my attention that in recent times, there has been a growing influx of those who believe that it should be illegal to burn or otherwise desecrate the United States flag. These individuals, from citizen to politician, believe that it would be rational to fine, to arrest, and even to imprison those who dare denounce our nation’s flag. Such a belief is quite humorously coined by those who claim themselves to be patriots, despite their inherent disregard for the liberty that their self-identified title would seemingly protect. Any restrictions on the free actions of the individual are tyrannical, provided these actions in no way inhibit any other individual from exercising equally free actions. Flag desecration is no sudden exception. Assuredly, the inalienable rights to liberty and property guarantee the right of one to desecrate a flag, no matter its insignia.
Many individuals are often confused in regards to the legality of the action, so I will now provide a brief background. Through much of American history, flag burning was a felony, punishable by a fine and a prison sentence. However, when Gregory Lee Johnson protested his arrest over burning a flag at the 1984 Republican convention, he ultimately won the case in 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled in the 5-4 decision of Texas v Johnson that flag burning is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. The following year, after attempts to criminalize the action, its legality was upheld in the case of United States v Eichman. No such laws have been implemented since, and thus anyone may desecrate a United States flag in their preferred method without fear of legal penalties.
Despite this presumably obvious notion, many appear to either not understand what is entailed by the word “liberty”, or to simply not care. Among these misguided Patriots are the “Hallow’ed Sons” biker group, located in New York. In a 2015 interaction with a group of activists burning the American and Confederate Flags, the group decided that it would be prudent to turn to violence and threaten the peaceful protesters. Specifically, certain members of the biker gang insisted that if the protesters didn’t “get out of our country, [they] will cut some heads off.” The notion that a simple act of civil disobedience must be met with such violence is absolutely despicable, having no place in a free society. The very totalitarianism that these false patriots claim to preach against is clearly visible within them, as they begin advocating for coercive measures to be taken.
In this, I am not condemning, nor am I praising, the action itself of burning the flag. I believe that such a method is entirely situational, and there can be many legitimate uses of flag desecration as a means of protest, including advocation against war. However, it is entirely unclear why exactly these protesters were burning flags. The only clear action was the violent message of the false patriots, which must be condemned. A free society cannot be built around the principles of violence, with exception of self-defense, and despite what the false patriots may have believed, they were in no way objectively threatened by a piece of flaming cloth.
Alarmingly, such disregard for the fundamental liberties of humanity is not limited to alt-right biker groups, in fact, our very own President Donald J. Trump has shown similar authoritarianism. Shortly after his election, the president tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Clearly, Mr. Trump did not pick up on the implications of this tweet, especially considering the fact that the U.S. flag code clearly states that if irreparably tarnished, burning is indeed the proper methodology for retiring flags.
Aside from this amusing gaffe, there is a number of concerning facets in regards to the president’s tweet: most notably that he clearly is unfamiliar with the laws of the land. As this issue has not been continually readdressed by Mr. Trump, it is entirely possible that upon learning the laws of the land, he simply dropped the issue, recognizing a lost battle. Regardless, there is something fundamentally wrong with a nation that elects a president who cannot respect our Natural Rights.
The American flag, ultimately, has a subjective meaning that is up for the individual to interpret. The particular tri-color arrangement of cotton may carry a positive, neutral, or negative connotation of any degree to an individual, and no authority has a right to force a particular connotation on an individual. Just as the Patriot has a right to value the flag highly, the skeptic has a right to value it lowly. If it happens to be the property of the skeptic, then he has every right to do with it what he sees fit. In no way does this grant the right to burn or in any way desecrate someone else’s flag, as it should be treated with as much respect as any other piece of another individual’s property. Just as the skeptic’s right to swing his arm stops at the Patriot’s face, and vice versa, the skeptic’s right to desecrate his own justly acquired property stops at the edge of his justly acquired property.
Hence, it is a major violation of Natural Rights to desecrate the flag of another, though not at all to desecrate one’s own. Regardless of one’s individual view on the matter, flag burning is a protected act, both by the First Amendment and by the principles of Natural Rights. Thus, all attempts to prevent the treading on a flag, in essence, are instead treading on the rights of the people. Treading on flags is justified, whereas treading on rights is not.