The U.S. Constitution has only been amended 17 times outside of the Bill of Rights. All of those amendments revolve around limiting government and explicitly outlining and expanding citizen rights. Perhaps the most beautiful amendment, the amendment that best characterizes what the United States stands for, is the first: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.”
Sixteen years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Constitution when it struck down a Texas law that outlawed the burning of the U.S. flag. Ever since then, there has been a concerted effort to amend the Constitution to circumvent that decision. Thankfully, those efforts have all failed at succeeding; however, in a time of increasingly conservative government, this amendment will see its best chance at passage when the Senate hears testimony after the Fourth of July holiday.
This amendment is not only unnecessary but also “un-American.” The United States is not a nation of symbols. The United States is a nation of ideas and freedom. It is a nation where expression is not contingent on agreement but flourishes in spite of it. Should this amendment pass, it would be the first time in U.S. history that rights are not guaranteed but limited in the Constitution. Rather than being concerned about protecting the material flag, lawmakers should be concerned about protecting our ability to speak freely.
Respect for the flag is a deeply emotional issue for a vast majority of U.S. citizens, but it is precisely because our allegiance is voluntary that the United States works.
Justice William J. Brennan said it best 16 years ago when he wrote for the majority in the Texas case, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” We have not recognized an exception to this principle even one in which our flag has been involved.