Freedom of speech not without costs

At a College Council meeting on Wednesday night, those of us on Council were considering the passage of an amendment to College Council’s constitution. The question revolved around the elections process in March and how to insulate them from any conflict of interest. After considerable debate, Council decided not to take the extreme step of attempting to amend the constitution. It was decided that there was a better way and perhaps it would be irresponsible to think that we could solve all of the problems with a constitutional amendment.

That very day, however, members of a different type of government were moving closer and closer to the passage of an amendment, this one to the U.S. Constitution. The Senate Judiciary Committee released a bill on an 11-7 vote that would amend the Constitution, making desecration of the American flag a crime. Long an issue of contention, the so-called “flag-burning” amendment would prohibit actions that are now considered Constitutionally protected free speech. Two years ago, the amendment received a great deal more than the requisite two-thirds majority needed in the House, but fell short in the Senate. Now, because of changing membership, the question seems less clear. The support remains in the House and may now actually be there in the Senate. Let us hope that that support is not there.

One of the fundamental principles of American political thought is that of free speech and free expression. We protect the rights of our citizens to say what they wish without fear of retribution or oppression. It is this freedom that allows us to live in a political atmosphere with liberty and a robust exchange of ideas. What we gain is a nation where there is no question that the people are free and that government is an institution controlled by the people and not the other way round. This situation is not without its costs. The price of such a nation is that its citizens must endure the speech that they do not want to hear along with that which they do. A small price in my opinion for such a large gain.

Supporters of this amendment contend that the flag is a symbol of our nation. They argue that as such it deserves a certain level of respect from each of us. I would have to take issue with this assertion. Certainly the flag is a symbol of our nation, but I believe it is up to each of us as individuals and not the Federal Government to decide whether or not that symbol is worthy of our respect. Surely the desecration of the flag is an extreme step, but I would prefer that the decision of whether that step is warranted were in my hands rather than have that decision taken from me.

Some proponents of this bill argue for it in terms of the moral degradation of our society. According to Senator Chuck Hagel, “Some of our cultural problems today, and yes, Littleton, Colo., fits into that,” are the result of “lack of respect for things bigger than ourselves.” This argument, besides being a questionable appropriation of the events in Littleton, Colorado for political purposes, is absurd. Even if we accept Senator Hagel’s argument that our problems come from a lack of respect for certain symbols then by his logic it becomes clear that the solution is that we need to get our citizens to respect such symbols. However, there is no reason to assume that, by banning desecration of our flag, such respect will increase. That citizens are desecrating the flag is perhaps a symptom of a greater problem but it remains just that, a symptom. Senator Hagel assumes that by treating the symptom we can cure the problem. I cannot agree.

Burning the flag is a form of speech and political protest that upsets some people. It makes many both uncomfortable and angry. It is speech that most of us don’t want to hear and that’s why it is important. Protecting speech that doesn’t offend anyone is easy. It’s protecting the speech that makes us upset, that gets us enraged that is the test of liberty. Those who wrote the protection of free speech into the Constitution knew all this. Those who would change that Constitution and that freedom of speech apparently do not.

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