Two Senators Switch Positions To Send Flag Amendment to Resounding Defeat

March 29, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Two U.S. Senators today switched their positions and joined with 35 of their colleagues to resoundingly defeat a proposed constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the flag. The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the votes and commended Senators Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Richard Bryan of Nevada for standing up for the nation’s most fundamental freedoms.

“This issue goes to the heart of what this country and our flag stands for,” said Terri Schroeder, an ACLU legislative representative. “The First Amendment is the very foundation of the freedoms the flag represents.”

The amendment failed by a vote of 63 to 37, four votes shy of the two-thirds necessary to send the proposal to the states. Last June, the House passed the amendment by a vote of 305 to 124, just 15 votes more than the 290 required for passage of a constitutional amendment.

Today’s vote marked the fourth time in a little over a decade that the Senate has rejected the proposed constitutional amendment. The vote, however, was a stark reversal of the decade-long trend toward increasing margins in support of the amendment.

The proposed constitutional amendment would be the first to restrict the freedoms guaranteed Americans by the Bill of Rights. Since the original Bill of Rights the United States Constitution has been amended only 17 times, and one of those — Prohibition — was a mistake that had to be repealed by yet another constitutional amendment.

“The American right to freedom of expression has often resulted in offensive speech. But that freedom cannot survive if exceptions are made every time someone in power decides certain forms of expression are too offensive to permit,” Schroeder said. “If we allow that, our right to speech will inevitably depend on what the government is willing to permit – the very situation the First Amendment was designed to prevent.”

The Senators who switched their votes today joined other prominent Americans like retired Gen. Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and former Senator John Glenn, in opposing the amendment.

In a letter cited on the Senate floor a great deal today, General Powell said: “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. 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.”

The ACLU’s Schroeder noted that thousands of veterans have contacted the ACLU to register their opposition to the amendment and to offer their help in dispelling the myth that veterans speak with one voice about the proposed amendment.

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