On their quest to avoid substantive issues
and sidetrack voters before the election, congressional Republicans
know no limits, even the First Amendment. In July, the U.S. Senate
Judiciary Committee approved a constitutional amendment against
flag burning, bringing this issue before the full Senate. This,
along with several other bills to be debated before November, was
designed by its Republican sponsors to bring up a controversial
issue in the weeks leading up to the November elections. This is an
unabashedly political move, one that at best will distract
lawmakers from more pressing matters, and at worst could curtail
freedom of speech rights in America.

Janna Hutz

With a whole host of issues to consider before November, flag
burning should have been a relatively low priority in Congress.
Instead, it will now undoubtedly be brought onto the foreground
— to little or no consequence. Many prominent Republicans,
like Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R–Tenn.), support the
amendment, while congressional Democrats Sen. Russ Feingold
(D–Wis.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle
(D–S.D.) do not think the Constitution should be amended to
include the ban. Unfortunately for Democrats like Sen. John Kerry
and running mate Sen. John Edwards, standing on the side of the
First Amendment may put them on the wrong side of a politically
charged issue.

By their very nature, political symbols like flags can mean
different things to different people. Just as citizens have the
right to express their patriotism by honoring the flag, they should
also have the right to voice their anger or opposition by burning
it — an act these individuals may see as a powerful display
of patriotism as well. Thus far, the U.S. Supreme Court has
recognized burning the flag as a constitutionally protected form of
political expression.

Faced with the choice of respecting fundamental rights or
respecting a symbol, Americans should strive to choose the former
every time. Congress indeed has the power to propose an amendment
to end this protection, but it does so at the expense of free
speech. Rights can have their limitations, especially as one
individual’s rights infringe on another’s. Yet, burning
a flag is a victimless crime, in that it does not directly cause
any harm to others.

Feingold was correct when he said, “Thankfully, they do
not have the votes to pass it on the floor, so this becomes
something of a political exercise in an election year.” But
political exercises take time, energy and taxpayer money. Along
with the flag-burning amendment, the Senate also wasted time over
the summer debating a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage. The
proposed amendment failed.

In a year marked by conflict abroad and economic turmoil at
home, it would be unfortunate if an issue such as this took away
from debate on the issues that will really matter. To put this
issue in perspective, Congress hasn’t even passed a budget
yet.

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