To Burn or Not To Burn, That is the Question

By Jonathan D. Boatwright

In my latest foray in the world of Facebook, I came across a video on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. The video showed cops intervening in a tense situation on the campus of Valdosta State University.  Mrs. Michelle Manhart, a former member of the United States Airforce and recent Playboy model, had taken offense at what she saw as the desecration of the American flag by student protestors. Mrs. Manhart proceeded to take the flag from the protesters. As is to be expected, the students wanted their rightful property returned, something  for which this “patriotic” minded woman was intent on not doing. Ultimately, she was arrested,  though she was later released, much to the chagrin of commenter’s on TheBlaze’s Facebook page. The comments section was replete with protestations against woman being arrested and the ubiquitous calls for banning desecration of the American flag. Many expressed support for Michelle Manhart and decried the officers’ actions. Numerous individuals called for the officers to be fired.

In all of this, having perused and commented on several comment sections on facebook, one thing that alarmed me was the repeated reference to the collective “us” ownership of the American flag. Who is this “us” that they refer to?  Is it the conservative 51%+ majority that wish to impose on the rest us of a limitation on our right to free speech? The majority that thinks it is okay to steal property and threaten violence on anyone who dare, at the least, to fly the American flag upside down? If that is the “us” in whom conservatives demand I be a part of, I flatly refuse to. Furthermore, what are conservatives actually conserving, when like liberals, they become so offended and incensed over the issue that they demand a law be put in place to expunge the offending act, or support laws on the books which already do.  I find this conservative position to be a slap in the face to free speech itself, the unintended consequence being that symbols which we would all agree should be desecrated and disrespected, should as a matter of consistency become equally protected. Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute summed up my personal feelings rather succinctly, when he said,

“It is said also that the flag is special because men have fought and died for it. Let me suggest in response that men have fought and died not for the flag but for the principles it represents. People give their lives for principles, not for symbols. When we dishonor those principles, to protect their symbol, we dishonor the men who died to preserve them. That is not a business this Congress should be about. We owe it to those men, men who have made the ultimate sacrifice, to resist the pressures of the moment so that we may preserve the principles of the ages.”

A separate issue I came across in these comment threads was the citing of 18 U.S. Code § 700. This is highly relevant to the discussion for one primary reason. Those who cited this section of the U.S. code, did so in a belief that as the law is legally enforceable. The only problem is that the law has been invalidated, and is unenforceable. In both 1989 and 1990 the Supreme Court responded to two cases which involved the the expressive conduct in question, and an expressive protest against the Flag Protection Act, which sought to overturn the Supreme Courts 1989 ruling.


We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.

Justice William J. Brennan, from his majority opinion in Texas v. Johnson (1989)

It is unfortunate that we must fight this fight over freedom of speech. In what is supposed to be a free country, the nature of free speech should not be in question. Unfortunately it is, and we must work to heave free speech over barriers like this. For me, it is because I regard the right of free speech with such high esteem, that I defend the right of student protestors to walk across the American flag. It is because I regard the right of free speech with such high esteem, that I would have defended Mrs. Manhart’s right to confront and challenge, if not counter protest, the students in question. Freedom is a two way street. Our natural right to be heard is reciprocal. The principle of equal rights, cannot be amended in one way without affecting it in other areas. If we offer protected status to the American flag, in fairness to that protection, where do we stop? How long will the list be? Are we willing to imprison anyone and everyone who would dare to impugn the honor of a symbol a particular group holds dear? It is not such much astounding, as it is disconcerting that so-called freedom loving conservatives so readily adopt a position that seems to be liberal in its origins, in the name of defending freedom. This is antithetical to freedom, and conservatives should know better, no matter how much it twists their stomachs and knots their innards.