Freedom of Speech
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Nigger. Spic. Spade. Kike. Greaser. Chink. Slant. Slope.
These are all words you cannot use in public without facing possible censure, including loss of your job.
Use those words in a sentence, and you might even lose your freedom. For example:
Those niggers need to be put back in their place. Hell, they think they're as good as white folks.
Say that in public, and you could be convicted of hate speech, and take a trip to the pokey.
However, burning an American Flag while screaming that America is a fascist state, and that our citizens are murderers, our military are jack booted thugs, and our political leaders are Nazis, well, that's A-OK.
Freedom of speech, dontcha know.
I think that's called irony.
So, where do I stand on the Amendment to ban the burning of the flag? Well, it's pretty clear that we've already set limits on how far the freedom of speech goes. It doesn't give you license to lie, or to defame others, or to disrupt the peace. Freedom of speech does not allow you to walk through your neighborhood at 3AM singing Sweet Adeline in 4 part harmony at the top of your lungs. It does not allow you to verbally harass somebody based on their race, appearance, or sex. We accept these limits on free speech because we've concluded that the harm caused by this speech outweighs the speaker's right to express himself. It's an application of the old saw, "Your rights end when they begin to abridge mine."
So let's look at burning the flag. Let's assume that it is speech and not vandalism or arson. (If you think I'm being silly, light a bonfire in a public park during a protest fueled by something other than flags and see what happens.) Does the damage caused by this speech outweigh the cretin's right to express himself? Additionally, does he have available other ways to express his sentiments?
To answer these questions, we only have to ask, "Why burn the flag, anyway? What's the intended response?"
It's pretty obvious that as a logical gambit, burning a beloved symbol falls flat. As a means of persuasion, it's actually counter productive. I doubt seriously that anybody who supports our country has decided to go to the other side because they burned our flag.
"That damn hippy is burning my flag! You know, seeing the flag I love go up in flames makes me think that maybe I am just a tool of an oppressive imperialist regime! Pass me a doobie, my man! Truth to power, and all that stuff"
That just ain't gonna happen.
So, if they aren't trying to win people to their cause, what are they trying to do?
Hurt people. They want to provoke an emotional response in the opposition by destroying something they revere, something that holds meaning to them. They like the outrage they provoke, just like Sinead O'Connor ripping up the picture of the Pope. It's a narcissistic stunt, a way for insecure punks to say "Look at me! I'm standing against the Man!"
It's not a protest; it's a child's tantrum. We don't put up with that kind of behavior from our children; why should we tolerate it in our adults?
So, the bottom line is this. Since we've already decided that the first amendment does not protect speech where the primary purpose is to cause damage and that's the only purpose of burning a flag, and those who dissent from the path our country is taking have multiple other means to express their dismay, there's no reason to extend First Amendment protections to flag burning.
That being the case, then why do we need an amendment to the Constitution?
Because most judges aren't as smart as me, that's why!
And for those who don't think this is an important issue, think about this. We think and commmunicate in symbols. It's how we process the information we take in every day. In a time when our nation is under attack, literally and figuratively, protecting our symbols is almost as important as protecting our borders. (Of course, we're failing in that regard as well.) If you're unconvinced, then just ask yourself a quick question:
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Freedom of speech is an abstract concept. It's a principle that can apply to many, many, many situations. Anyone can probably list 20-30 examples of Freedom of Speech issues right off the top of their heads. Each of those issues, however, is a concrete situation. And each situation has its own unique circumstances and details.
Life and culture has dictated that we may no longer, in polite society (i.e. in public) use the words Rich specifies at the beginning of his post when referring to other people. Back in the 50's and 60's, especially in the South, it was fairly common but through several decades of education and enlightenment society has determined that those words are offensive and wrong, and should not be used. If you use them in public, you will very likely be ostracized at worst, frowned on at best. There were no laws that said so, no rules or statutes making them illegal - just the general disapproval of society. That "Freedom of Speech" issue decision was made automatically as a process of the evolution of culture.
Similarly, the restriction of "shouting fire in a crowded theatre" has actually become a law based on the acceptance of society. I doubt even the staunchest free speech advocates would fight for that right, because it's simply the right thing to do. Congress made it official, but society actually made the decision.
These two concrete examples were decided for us, so we haven't had to debate them. And society decided them because they were the right things to do to protect our lives and civility. In a similar vein you have restrictions against libel and slander. And revealing classified information.
Yet, in a strict sense, they are all limits on the 1st Amendment, the freedom to say anything you want to.
Flag burning probably should've evolved in a similar fashion as racial slurs - it should've become so deplorable a practice that nobody would do it, at the risk of social ostracization. But that hasn't happened, and there are people fighting to keep the right to burn the flag. And Congress has had to attempt legislation to outlaw it.
That's where the abstract vs. concrete debate comes in. To some freedom of speech advocates, the right to free speech in the abstract trumps the concrete immorality of burning the flag, so they go against the better nature of society and defend the abstract.
In this case, we would be better served to examine the concrete and weigh the pluses and minuses of flag-burning better. Then a better-reasoned, better thought out solution might apply.
Unfortunately abstract is all some people have left, so they fight for it tooth and nail - at the expense of societal decorum and respect for a symbol of our country.
Should anyone ever burn a US flag in protest? No, I can't imagine a possible reason anyone would ever want to. It's a deplorable, horrible practice. Should it be a legally restricted act? I wish it didn't have to, but since nobody should ever do it, and the abstract fighters who won't listen to specifics of this example resist such a restriction.
We all would be better served to not follow blindly the abstract concepts that make up our customs and laws, but to apply logic, reason and fairness in understanding how these laws apply to our culture, decorum and public respect. Then make your decisions based on all sides of the argument.
Is that too much to ask?