Why You Do (and Should) Have the Right to Burn Flags

American flag. Photo by Robert Claypool.

President-elect Donald Trump is certainly no stranger to social media controversies, and it appears his victory in November hasn’t changed the likelihood additional controversies will come our way in the future. Early this morning, Trump sent a message via Twitter suggesting flag burning should result in a loss of citizenship or jail time.

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Trump wrote.

Flag burning has always been a controversial and emotional issue in U.S. politics. My father, uncle, and both grandfathers served in the military, and I have great respect for the American flag, what it represents, and the people who have served (and continue to serve) to protect freedom. I can think of few symbolic expressions of anti-Americanism I find more repulsive than burning the nation’s flag, but, contrary to the beliefs of Donald Trump, I believe the only kind of speech worth protecting is that which others find offensive.

I support the right for people to burn flags, to hate America, and to openly question and even insult our political, cultural, academic, economic, and military leaders. I do so not because being offensive is good, but because being offensive is subjective. What President-elect Trump finds perfectly legitimate speech may be viewed by others, especially his political rivals, as “offensive” and worthy of being barred by law. If Trump believes it’s legitimate to prevent dissenters from burning flags, why is it not legitimate for his rivals to pass laws preventing his free expression or speech? Where do we draw the line? How do we draw the line?

By protecting the right to speak and express oneself, the Constitution empowers the individual against the nation’s power structures. This doesn’t mean, as many who are defending Trump’s comments today allege, all speech and expression is free. That’s true. You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater or threaten to harm people with word and action. The First Amendment is not a license to ruin the lives of others or to create dangerous situations.

As the Supreme Court ruled in its decision in Texas v. Johnson (1989), a case that dealt specifically with flag burning, laws against breaching the peace are permissible. But, the Court reasoned, when people freely and peacefully express themselves, however offensive that expression may be to others, without harming the rights of others, that free expression (or speech) is protected under the First Amendment.

I agree, and I would go a step further: When societies ban free expression and speech, they actually increase the likelihood of violence; when people feel oppressed and voiceless, that’s when they are most likely to lash out against those who have chosen to silence them.

President-elect Trump’s argument that people should potentially lose their citizenship for freely expressing themselves is dangerous and reeks of authoritarianism. Hopefully, the backlash against his comments will convince him to reverse his position, which, if it were somehow made into law, would be both illegal and highly oppressive.

A modified version of this op-ed was published by the Washington Examiner. It’s available here: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/why-you-do-and-should-have-the-right-to-burn-flags/article/2608371

PHOTO: American flag. Photo by Robert Claypool.