ACLU Renews Call to Keep Censorship Out of Constitution; Flag 'Desecration' Amendment Undermines American Principles

June 2, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Adding to the multitude of proposed constitutional amendments this election year, a Senate subcommittee today considered an amendment that would codify censorship in the Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union strongly urged Senators to reject the proposed constitutional amendment to ban “desecration” of the flag, standing with the veterans and American heroes who say that the measure would betray the very principles of free expression and tolerance of dissent for which the flag stands.

“Only days after our nation honored our veterans, Congress is considering a proposal that undermines the very freedoms that men and women in uniform fought so hard for,” said Terri Ann Schroeder, an ACLU Legislative Analyst. “Many veterans oppose this measure because it places the symbol of the flag above the principles it represents. The flag amendment would restrict the First Amendment for the first time and undermine American values. As individuals, we are free to condemn those that would deface the flag, but censorship has no place in the Constitution.”

The “Flag Protection Amendment” (S.J. Res. 4) would amend the Constitution to give Congress the power to criminalize any “physical desecration” of the American flag. The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected laws banning desecration of the flag; Congress has consistently rejected proposed constitutional amendments since the late 1980s.

Indeed, the ACLU noted that flag burning remains an isolated and rare occurrence, even with the resurgence in political protest prompted by the war in Iraq. Opponents of the measure are also wary of its inevitable unintended consequences, which could, given its imprecise wording, include the waste of tax dollars on unnecessary and politically motivated prosecutions.

Opposition to the flag amendment is ideologically broad, with conservatives, moderates and progressives fearful of the implications for basic American freedoms if the amendment were ratified. And, although some prominent veterans groups have endorsed the amendment, a sizeable and growing number of veterans – of all generations and from all major military engagements of the past 90 years – have been vocal in their principled opposition to the bill.

“Preservation of the freedom of dissent — even if it means using revered icons of this democracy — is what helps me understand losing my legs,” said Gary May, a Vietnam veteran who has testified on the measure. “Free expression, especially the right to dissent with the policies of the government, is one important element — if not the cornerstone – of the democracy that has greatly enhanced our country’s stability, prosperity and strength.”

Notable figures in the Bush Administration have also expressed support for maintaining the integrity of American constitutional freedoms. “The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous,” said retired general and current Secretary of State Colin Powell in a 1999 letter. “I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will be flying proudly long after they have slunk away.”

To read Gary May’s testimony, or to read more on the ACLU’s opposition to the Amendment, go to:

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