EDITORIAL: Possible flame war on First Amendment
President-elect’s flag-burning tweet suggests attack on free speech
Our President-elect has once again used his favorite method of communication to address the citizens of America: Twitter. This time, Donald Trump has utilized the social media app to express his negative opinions on flag-burning and to articulate the punishments he feels would be appropriate for those who do. Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or (a) year in jail!”
Trump tweeted this yesterday morning at 6:55 a.m. without a clear motivation or cause. It is speculated that this patriotic outburst was in response to the burning of the flag by students of the Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., but it would be rather peculiar for Trump to respond to the actions of a college where the student population totals 1,400. Aside from the source of this seemingly unprompted declaration of nationalism, there are a few other details that should be considered in response to these actions. These details can be outlined in the First Amendment.
The First Amendment is the declaration for freedom of expression, in a manner in which Congress can not stop its citizens from “restricting the rights of individuals to speak freely.” However, “expression” can be asserted in more than just orally or in written methods. Burning the flag can also be considered a form of expression as it is the symbolic representation of petitioning or being unsatisfied with the government. But Trump was not the first to challenge this notion. This concern about flag-burning being unconstitutional has already been settled — almost 30 years ago by the Supreme Court.
In 1989, Gregory Lee Johnson stood outside of the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, and proceeded to burn the American flag. This was his way of expressing his anger toward then-President Ronald Reagan. After the Supreme Court decided to take on his case from a smaller Texas court, they decided in a 5-4 ruling that it was not the government’s place to regulate the practice of people's First Amendment rights. This is a decision that Trump should carefully consider.
The beauty of the United States of America is that it allows its citizens to speak their minds, even if it says to burn its own flag. Although the burning of the American flag might not be favorable, it is not up to the government to tell people how they are allowed to express their anger at what they see as the government’s injustices. Punishing those who do, as Trump is suggesting, would put America in the ranks of nations like the former Soviet Union and South Africa, where laws were implemented to punish the same “offense.” And it is unlikely that Trump plans to “make America great again” by mirroring the laws of a group of countries that include one that he has labeled a “crime ridden mess.”
Perhaps Trump’s concern with flag-burnings has to do with the fact that this action was taking place across the nation in response to his election. Perhaps his defense is that, if people should be allowed to express their feelings in such a way, there should be no reason to discredit his previous uses of language regarding certain groups of people. Or perhaps Trump is concerned about the feelings of the troops who fight for this nation who might be upset by this action. What Trump must realize is that this is America, and that burning the flag is the same freedom of speech that these troops are fighting to protect. Burning the flag is not targeting a group of people or making citizens feel hated or discriminated against, it is a declaration of anger toward the government. And perhaps, rather than jumping to punishing these people, the government and our President-elect should question why their actions would make the citizens of the U.S. want to burn the flag in the first place.
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