A Burning Issue of Free Speech
Bangor Daily News
June 14, 1995
My heart goes aflutter every time I see our flag on a pole, or one carried proudly by some Boy Scout or aging veteran in a parade. A rather large one dominates most of an entire wall in my office.

I dearly love the flag, and the incredibly wonderful country it symbolizes. So when anyone tries to burn a flag, it gets my attention. I want to know why. Is this guy just a nut, or is his beef with the government something I should seriously consider?

Yet, I just can't see jailing someone, at my expense, for burning the flag. I would rather save the prison space for the violent offenders.

You see, I am an adamant defender of our First Amendment right to free expression. And there is no question in my mind that flag-burning is a form of expression.

Face it. The reason for burning our flag is not to get rid of a piece of cloth. Or to keep warm. Or to cook dinner.

The intent of burning the flag is not to start a fire, but to inflame passions. That simple fact is why it's a form of expression protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution. And that is why it would be a contradiction of the Constitution itself to make this particular form of free speech a crime.

Beyond that is another, more down-to-earth issue. As I look at all the very real and very scary things that are happening in this world, I can't get past the fact that burning a red, white and blue piece of cloth is in no way a threat to the safety and security of either this nation or my neighborhood.

For those who say our brave men and women did not die in all the wars the past 200 years to end up having people free to burn our country's flag with impunity, I say: Yes they did. They did exactly that. That is what freedom of speech is all about. It is precisely that precious, that valuable.

After all, the importance of our flag is not in its cloth, it is in what it symbolizes. Funny thing about symbols they don't burn. No matter how much cloth goes up in flame, no matter how much hatred is hurled at it, our flag is still there.

The flag can take it.

Those of us who look upon the flag with pride and joy need to recognize another aspect to human nature, one eloquently explained by a young woman in Stonington, Maine, at a recent hearing about a possible ban on in-line skating on Main Street.

"If you ban it," she said of this fast-growing sport, "it will become a rebellion thing. Kids won't respect [the law] and will do it just because it's banned."

She's right. Look at the record. Flag-burning cases, never a hot item, have dropped to a handful in the six years since the Supreme Court ruled that activity was a protected form of free speech.

If it's not against the law, what's the challenge? Now that we have an all-volunteer army, when was the last time someone got your attention by burning his draft card?

If we pass this amendment and flag-burning becomes illegal, we should brace ourselves, because more, not fewer, people who are ticked off at our government will use it to render their displeasure.

In a way, that might not be such a bad thing.

Better the flag than the President.

Better the flag than the federal building.

The flag can take it.