Ambiguity and Abstraction: Flags and the First Amendment

I’m not an Eagle Scout. There, I said it, and now you all know and can fold your arms and shake your heads shamefully. In my defense, I was a measly three merit badges away from Boy Scout glory, but I can’t put Eagle Scout Minus Three Merit Badges on a resume, now, can I? Now, for any of you Wildcats who were Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, I’m sure you’re well aware of flag etiquette. How to fold, raise, retire and anything else you can do to an Old Glory was mercilessly pounded into my head as a scout, and a great deal of respect for the Star-Spangled Banner has been a by-product of that pounding. I don’t think it would have crossed my naive mind that any good American would ever consider disrespectfully burning, writing on or desecrating something so patriotically sacred as the American flag, but gratefully I no longer live with the misconception that everyone treats the American flag like a loyal Boy Scout, nor do I live under the misconception that desecrating a flag makes one a bad American or unpatriotic.

Now, to be clear, I personally dislike the practice of desecrating our national symbol, and I find the practice to be just the opposite of a scholarly means of persuasion. However, if there is someone out there who feels that what they have to say could be best expressed by burning or taking a Sharpie marker to Old Glory, then that is their protected right under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Last week, this First Amendment right was put to the test during a parade in none other than Cache Valley, Utah. Some college students deemed it prudent to write a message on a flag with black ink, and then, while holding said flag upside down, walked around a Fourth of July parade sharing their message of discontent with current American policies. Apparently some parade-goers were offended by the message; the students were asked to leave by local law enforcement and were even threatened with a citation under a Utah law that makes any desecration to the flag a Class A misdemeanor.

It’s ironic enough that Utah still has an unconstitutional law on the books that is in direct violation of a Supreme Court ruling (see Texas v. Johnson), but even more ironic to me was what transpired at that Cache Valley parade. Thousands of people gathered together to celebrate our independence and the freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America, but then when someone tried to exercise their right to speak freely, they were asked to leave the area and were threatened with a citation — the message being that, yes, we have the freedom to speak our minds, as long as those who hear our message are happy with what we have to say. I think my favorite fictitious president Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas in one of my favorite flicks, The American President, said it best:

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve got to want it bad, because it’s going to put up a fight. It’s going to say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now, show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

Why presidents don’t hire more screenwriters to write their speeches I will never know.