The flag and burning symbols of freedom |

The flag and burning symbols of freedom

Kirk Caraway
Nevada Appeal Internet Editor

I saw my coworker Phil the other day working with an image of an American flag on his computer, trying to create a graphic for the Memorial Day edition.

And it struck me that what he was doing could be considered illegal if a proposed constitutional amendment is approved. My friend Phil could be thrown in jail for Photoshopping the flag.

It bothered me enough that I went and looked up the actual proposed amendment. It’s short and sweet. “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

So, according to this wording, my friend Phil is off the hook, because manipulating an image of a flag on a computer is not physical. But then, you never know how a future court may interpret that.

But then, isn’t the flag a symbol? If a protest group broadcasts a simulated flag burning on national television, wouldn’t the alleged harm be the same, or worse?

Every time this issue of flag desecration comes up, I can’t help thinking of Abbie Hoffman wearing an American flag as a diaper. Would a stunt like that be considered physical desecration under this proposed amendment?

What about the people who fly little flags from their car antennas until they are shredded? What happens if there is an American flag printed in this newspaper and you use it to line a birdcage?

This amendment leaves open what a flag will be defined as. Congress could say that paper versions don’t count, making it safe to use newspaper as fire starter in your wood stove.

But protesters could then legally burn paper versions of the flag. Or what if they burned a flag with 51 stars, or 14 stripes? Would that be legal? How about those Chinese-made plastic flags? Would they count or not?

Sounds like this is a law that would be open to a lot of interpretation, and that is a dangerous thing when it comes to constitutional law. Remember that abortion was legalized because the court ruled citizens have a right to privacy, even though this right is not directly spelled out in the Constitution. What could future courts do with this flag-burning amendment? Could they rule that respect for the country and its symbols are more important than free speech? Could this make criticizing the government illegal? That may sound far-fetched, but do you really want to take that chance just to keep some hippie from wearing the stars and stripes as a loincloth?

And while we are talking about symbols, what about the National Anthem? It, too, is a symbol of America. Are we going to put people in jail for botching the words? Will the Jimi Hendrix version suddenly become contraband?

The problem with this amendment is it is intended to ban symbolism, which is speech. We may not like the symbolism of Old Glory in flames, but to ban that act is to ignore what the flag stands for: freedom.

There are a lot of patriotic Americans who are rightly disgusted at the thought of their flag being burned. But you can’t force patriotism onto Americans without turning us into a westernized version of North Korea. Now there’s a country in desperate need of some flag burning.

Let’s try to remember that millions of Americans throughout this nation’s history fought and died not for the flag, but for the freedom it represents. There are far more important problems to be solved than this, and it’s time we started working on them.

• Kirk Caraway is Internet editor of the Nevada Appeal. Write to him at or comment online at