For those of us who follow the wildest and wackiest events surrounding the First Amendment, San Antonio attorney Gerald H. Goldstein has always been one to watch. That’s because, as both a criminal defense attorney and a First Amendment specialist, he so often ends up in that bizarre zone where “speech” is sometimes considered “criminal.”
Speaking at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ annual conference in San Antonio during a First Amendment luncheon, Goldstein had more than a few things on his mind given our nation’s war on terrorism, the USA Patriot Act, and his own luminous record of defending, at various times, gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and crude Miami rappers 2 Live Crew. He also had this to say about being disciplined by a Kiwanis Club member for his opposition to a constitutional amendment outlawing flag burning. Goldstein’s grandmother would no doubt be ashamed of his position, the Kiwanis member said.
“My grandmother crawled across Eastern Europe to get away from people like you,” Goldstein remembers telling the man. “And I think the only thing she’d be ashamed of is the Mercedes I drove up in.”
Now that our own Sen. Orrin Hatch is trying to amend the constitution to prevent desecration of the U.S. flag for, oh, about the 27th time in his political career, it’s time to remind ourselves of why this idea stinks on ice. Few of us have ever met anyone who thinks torching Old Glory is a good idea—or even effective political protest. Indeed, as a USA Today editorial on the topic pointed out, the activity is hardly epidemic. We must go back to August 2003 at an Oregon protest to find the last time someone put flame to the flag.
Of course, the sheer infrequency of this “problem” has never stopped Hatch from milking it for points. In terms of the massive weight of political ills and social problems before us, flag burning doesn’t rate even as a hangnail compared to the malignancies threatening us year after year. Nevertheless, with his pointless adventures to get his amendment through committee time after time, Hatch insists that “a wonderful, nationwide discussion” about American “ideals and values” would take place should his amendment be ratified. Well, we can have that discussion right now, without altering a legal document that’s needed little altering since 1791.
Hopefully, we can all agree that the flag is a great symbol of our freedoms. But that’s it. As a mere symbol, it can’t possibly act as the embodiment or substance of our freedoms. Perhaps we should start teaching the Greek philosophers in public school once more, so more of us will understand this crucial difference. A flag you can burn, drag or spit on is a lot more valuable as a symbol than one you can’t touch simply because it’s deemed holier than the very freedom it ought to represent. And because that flag is more valuable, it ought to command more respect. So it is even now, without Hatch’s useless amendment.
The day we punish flag desecration is the day we make it much easier to imprison people for political views. If we can punish someone for expressing their disagreement with U.S. policy by disrespecting the flag, it won’t be long before we can punish someone for penning such execrable patriotic songs as “America Rocks.” Should that day ever come, let’s see if Hatch owns up to it. Then he’d see just how vicious nationalist fervor can become.