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Burning Flags

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I teach about communication law. My course focuses on freedom of speech and press. I always have the class debate the question of flag-burning as symbolic speech. When I taught in predominantly white schools, no issue in freedom of speech was so emotional as this one among students. The classes almost always divided very evenly on whether there should be freedom to burn the flag as symbolic political speech. It's the only issue where students have nearly gotten into a fight in my classes. To some, the flag is or borders on sacred. My experience with this issue has changed since I've been teaching at an HBCU (historically black college or university). The historical experience of blacks in America has been quite different than whites, and so there is far less of this attachment to America and its symbols. I do get some students who believe the flag is sacred or almost so, but far fewer. Most in my HBCU would rather come down on the side of freedom of speech in the flag-burning issue. I'd appreciate comments from anyone else on the list (though be warned that I might steal them for my teaching :-) (anonymously, of course).
Edmund Midura (USA), 07 December 1997

Edmund wrote "Most in my HBCU would rather come down on the side of freedom of speech in the flag-burning issue. I'd appreciate comments from anyone else on the list."

This is, as you say, a fighting area for Americans. I would make the case that too much protection of the flag actually harms it. Since the US Supreme Court declared that no law can prevent an American from burning the flag there has been a noticeable increase in the use of the flag. Add to this the use of the flag on clothing and in advertising and the increase is much more dramatic.

With strict laws, people become so afraid that they may do something wrong, display it wrong, or be subject to criticism that they have not shown proper respect for the flag, that many find it easier not to use the flag at all.

People in the US now use the US flag with a freedom and ease (and enjoyment) hardly known 20 years ago.
Herold Lee (USA), 07 December 1997

In my opinion, the calls to make flag-burning illegal (by Constitutional amendment if necessary, which it would be) is part of a larger trend in the country which really bugs me, namely that everything of which we disapprove MUST be illegal. Many people seem to believe that unless we outlaw something, we are actively encouraging it. I think that this is one of those cases where we ought to be honoring the flag as individuals; a law-enforced honor would be meaningless, since it would be only enforced by fear of punishment.

I would be very interested in hearing whether other countries have debates like this. I know that in communist China flag desecration is illegal -- something which I enjoy using to bait those who thing flag-burning should be illegal, since said persons are often extreme Marxophobes.
Joshua Fruhlinger (USA), 07 December 1997

I agree and I fear it bodes a much more repressive society in USA in future. Having said that, I'm almost sorry I did because it might get us involved in politics instead of flags. What I'm really interested in is how you all feel about flag-burning as a form of symbolic speech.
Edmund Midura (USA), 07 December 1997

There was a fair amount of debate a couple of years back in New Zealand about an art exhibition, at which one exhibit was a large doormat with a picture of a NZ flag on it and "Stand on me" written underneath. There were calls to ban that particular exhibit.
James Dignan (New Zealand), 08 December 1997

While I am passionate about flags, I must ask myself a question: do I fear the burning of a flag more than the loss of freedom of speech? I cringe at the thought of someone burning a flag, but I cringe more at the loss of one of the most fundamental rights in America.

The true question: what do we value more? Repression seems to be growing. Make something illegal if we disagree with it, as Josh said. Politically correct will become the rule, not freedom.

Didn't someone in the American Revolution once say, "Sir, I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Have we lost this spirit?
Edward Mooney (USA), 07 December 1997

There was a case here in Winchester just before the last General Election when an anti-Europe campaigner walked into the Great Hall (a 13th-century building now mainly used for ceremonies and exhibitions) tore down an EU flag on display there, took it outside and burnt it in front of some press cameras that "just happened" to be there.

Apart from the issue of the criminal destruction of public property (the flag belonged to the County Council) the general attitude to the incident here was "What a loony."
Roy Stilling (UK), 07 December 1997

There was also a big fuss some years ago in USA at an art exhibition where you were invited the sign the guestbook but had to stand on a US flag on the floor to do so. American Legion (or some vets' org.) kept coming in and picking up the flag.
Edmund Midura (USA), 07 December 1997

I have mixed feelings on this issue. I used to be strongly in favor of a constitutional amendment. Now I am not sure this is the answer, but I don't know what is!

First of all: speech is verbal, something spoken. Burning a flag is an action. I have never interpreted the bill of rights to say "do anything you want to do." People have the right to assemble peaceable to protest, but not the right to riot, overturn cars and destroy property in the process. One doesn't have an arm amputated, to remove a wart. There are less painful ways to achieve that purpose.

I served in the military to defend peoples rights to say hateful, mean, racist, vulgar things. But not to hit, kill, burn crosses, or cause physical damage to persons or property. There is a difference. If someone has a gripe - voice it to anyone willing to listen. Just don't destroy our flag.
Rick Wyatt (USA), 07 December 1997

Question: What I'm really interested in is how you all feel about flag-burning as a form of symbolic speech.

I don't like it! Mainly for ideological reasons - it shows terrible disrespect. It is a powerful form of symbolic speech, because it surely means that the burner is rejecting everything the flag stands for. And one wonders, when people burn their national flag, if they realise that by rejecting/protesting about what the flag stands for they are also doing the same against themselves. It's their flag as well!

In the US, would protestors be better advised burning a flag that is closer to what they're protesting against? The CIA, US Army, City of Washington etc.? That might be more accurate...but not have the same emotional impact, of course.

So, to answer the question, I don't like flag-burning, but it should be allowed. As Edmund points out, just because you don't prohibit something doesn't mean you are endorsing it.
David Cohen (Australia), 08 December 1997

You can destroy *a* U.S. flag and by doing so you are communicating your feelings relevant to the context in which you are burning or otherwise "desecrating" it. (Thus I do consider it speech.) But this is not destroying *the* U.S. flag or the values and ideals it represents.

I think that those who are worried about this issue need to lighten up and realize that our flag is much bigger than a piece of cloth and that a demonstration (while quite possibly very offensive) doesn't threaten our constitution or the institutions that make our country something to be proud of. Indeed, our protection of offensive speech (popular speech needing no protection), is one of the ideals that our flag symbolizes that makes me love it and want to honor it.

In terms of the *action* of burning the flag I do believe that there are circumstances where it is appropriate to make it illegal--those being where starting a fire is dangerous or even undesirable. This is the distinction between "speech" and "action".

By the way, following this reasoning, I do object to (to use one of Rick's examples) the burning of a cross of someone's lawn where the owner of the property does not consent or where there are local statutes prohibiting open fires, etc. However I would support the right of someone to do so in a place unencumbered by such restrictions. And I say this having a strong personal revulsion for what cross burning usually symbolizes.

I also am a veteran and took very seriously my oath to "defend the constitution of the United States". Thus I am a very ardent opponent of seeing it diluted in any way.
Christopher A. Young (USA), 09 December 1997

I would say that political discussion about flag burning is a convenient way to avoid serious discussion about real social violence. This is certainly not specific to USA (and my intention is not to debate about violence in the USA or elsewhere). I think there is a trend to 'virtualize' any source of scare or violence, and moving the debate from real street violence to symbolic violence is part of this trend.

We recently had in France a similar case when a young guy wearing a T-shirt with 'Fuck the Police' was sued. There were lot of discussion about what the inscription means, if the Police was considered as a theoretical entity or if individual policemen could feel offended, etc. Some humorists also said it was not correct to encourage people to have sex with policemen and so on, but the real debate, about the perception of the Police by the citizens and the role of Police in a democratic society, was totally avoided. The same holds for the appropriation of national symbols (Joan of Arc) by extremist parties. Instead of fighting directly again the extremists, we fight in a virtual debate against the appropriation.
Ivan Sache (France), 10 December 1997

I have been thinking recently... (it happens). If someone claims to be burning a civil flag, than he is committing an act of hatred. If someone burns a state flag, he is manifesting criticism towards his government or the regime of the country. Comments ?
Luc-Vartan Baronian (Canada), 07 December 1997

Well, that might work where there are separate flags for people and government, but not so in many places. But even that distinction sounds legalistic and might blunt the purpose of the act. Good thought, though, Luc.

Re the burning of the EU flag, would they have thought he was a loony if he burned the Union Jacks? It's just a piece of fabric until we invest it with symbolism and emotion. THEN people get excited.
Edmund Midura (USA), 07 December 1997

Luc wrote "If someone burns a state flag, he is manifesting criticism towards his government or the regime of the country."

Only if the flag represents ONLY that regime. I disagree, in general. The flag of the USA, and Canada, and Quebec, represent not a regime, but a culture, a people, hopes and aspirations. Burning the US flag is burning, IMHO, all of these things. But we must have freedom of speech. If someone is against our principles, he or she should have the right to express it in a free society. I may disagree with a group, but I am fearful of outlawing thoughts and beliefs. I would shudder if I saw a US flag burning, and I would try and stop it, but I would not have those people arrested.

I really like what Josh said. Do we outlaw that which we disagree with? Is this not the practice of Nazis?
Edward Mooney (USA), 07 December 1997

I agree with Edmund and Edward that in many cases, burning the state/civil flag has the same effect, because they are the same. For example, someone burning the US flag because he doesn't agree with its foreign policy or because s/he considers that the government is disrespectful of the environment is also insulting the people living under the flag (though maybe unintentionally) because they love their land.

Now contrast this with someone burning an Afro-American flag, a Rainbow flag or even a US flag because he truly thinks and claims that Americans are sub-humans.

Now contrast this with someone burning the UN flag because he doesn't agree with the policies of the organization (I don't think anyone can consider the UN flag to be a civil flag - not yet - If so, replace UN with the flag of say the Danube Commission).

Like I said, in many cases, especially most of the state/provincial/regional flags, the distinction is not clear-cut, but in some cases, it is evident that the burner has something against a group of humans, not just a bureaucratic organization.

I also agree that any legislation on the subject would limit the freedom of speech and thus shouldn't be adopted. But I believe that we as vexillologists or vexillophiles should make at least this distinction between two types of flag burning, keeping in mind that some cases might be hard to distinguish and maybe represent both (e.g. someone burns a US flag because he thinks that Americans are sub-humans for supporting such a government).
Luc-Varian Baronial (Canada), 07 December 1997

Well, I guess I need guidance! Maybe I'm too much of a scientist, but, IMHO, if you see someone burn a flag and you don't agree with it, just look away or go away. I don't know. To me, a flag is only a piece of cloth. It is us with our brain that give it some "supra-cloth" properties such as: representing the whole ideology of a culture, and all that a flag is supposed to represent and stand for (or flap for!) etc. So when a flag has been burned to ashes by a person, look around, and see what has changed. Nothing. It's all in our minds IMO.

If it makes these people happy to burn a flag, let them have fun and just ignore them. It's easy for me to say, because in my mind, flags don't necessarily have a "supra-cloth" property. But if you believed they did, then, you could say that these people who got a flag just to burn it were only burning the cloth because the "spirit" of the flag left the flag when that person touched it. But I'm not very apt to believe in "flag-spirit".

This might sound crazy, but, I just feel that a flag is tissue, but our minds make it more. If you think that property away, it's just tissue again. No? But I do find this interesting. :) I don't mean to offend anyone. I would never burn a flag because I don't like to destroy things in general.
Alexander Victorian (Canada), 08 December 1997

Edmund Midura wrote, "Re the burning of the EU flag, would they have thought he was a loony if he burned the Union Jack? It's just a piece of fabric until we invest it with symbolism and emotion. THEN people get excited."

If it had been the Union Jack, many might have thought it bad taste, some - a few I think - might be offended, but I cannot see people getting as upset about it as some in the US and other countries do.
Roy Stilling (UK), 09 December 1997

Alexandre wrote, " Well, I guess I need guidance! Maybe I'm too much of a scientist, but, IMHO, if you see someone burn a flag and you don't agree with it, just look away or go away. I don't know. To me, a flag is only a piece of cloth..."

True. I just wanted to point out that there could be at least two different reasons for burning a flag : anger against an administration or against a group of humans (or both). The fact that many people (especially in North America it seems, but also in very nationalist countries such as Greece or Turkey) make such a fuss over a simple piece of cloth is very puzzling to me too.
Luc-Vartan Baronian (Canada), 08 December 1997

In a lot of countries, the civil and state flag is the same flag. And I doubt an angry mob distinguish between the two. For example, I have seen many a footage of foreign people burning the Stars and Stripes when they were actually angry with Clinton on a particular issue, so why are they not burning the Presidential standard?
Thomas W. Koh (Singapore), 09 December 1997

In response to Tom Koh's question, why they don't burn the Presidential standard?

Because you can't buy one ?...
Because they're not aware of its existence ?
Like I said, they might be angry at both the Americans and their government.
Luc-Vartran Baronian (Canada), 08 December 1997

Or maybe because the S&S is a flag for the government as well - remember in the rows of dots used to determine the use of a flag, the middle column is used for the S&S as well as the left and right ones. For countries that have different government flags than civic flags, maybe they do make a difference. For example, if I wanted to protest, say, the Colombian government's decision on such and such an item by burning its flag, I wouldn't' burn the plain tricolour flag, for that's the flag of the people, but rather the one with the coat-of-arms for that represents the government.
David Kendall (Canada), 09 December 1997

The only example of flag burning I know of in NZ is an embarrassing one, where a group of people demonstrating against the treatment of the Timorese stood outside the Indonesian embassy and... burnt the Polish flag.

James Dignan (New Zealand), 10 December 1997

On 12/9/1997 Edmund Midura wrote "My personal opinion is that we wouldn't be quite so rabid if there weren't opportunistic politicians trying to gain votes with their posings and posturings on this issue."

My opinion exactly. It seems to me, given the contrary nature of human existence, that making it illegal and prosecuting someone for it will cause the incidence of flag-burning to go up not down. After all what better protest is there than to clog up the judicial system. Attesting to that is what seems to me to be a lower incident rate. If the news media and Congress ignored it, it would probably go away. What fun is it protesting if how you protest doesn't cause a raise in tempers, etc.
Rich Hansen (USA), 09 December 1997

Has anyone read any of the excellent works on this subject by Professor Goldstein? His works are excellent.

This is exactly the point that Professor Goldstein proves in his book "Burning the Flag," that when people thought it was illegal, burning incidences went way up. After the Supreme Court said it's not illegal, the number of incidences dropped to almost nothing.

I probably would never burn a flag myself (I'd probably hide it for my collection), however I agree with the statements that you can burn *a* flag but you can *never* burn *the* flag. The meaning of a flag is in the minds of the observers; this is, I think, a fundamental point and one many people miss. What you say a flag means to you is not necessarily what it means to me; what a government says a flag means (for example, the Nazis) may be quite different from what the flag means to those who live and work under it. It's the same flag, but it has different associations to different people. And you can't ban the flag either, witness the rebirth of long suppressed designs in the former Soviet Union.
Dave Martucci (USA), 10 December 1997

Flag burning is popular only in certain zones of the world. And, being today's only superpower, the US are more in focus than other countries. So, inevitably, US flags are burnt more often than other flags. Personally, I only saw three flags being burnt (on TV): the US flag, the Israeli flag and the EU flag (report of the protest in the UK someone (Rick?) already talked about). I don't recall any episode of flag burning in Portugal. Even us having our beloved Indonesian enemies and a quite big East Timorese community here.
Jorge Candeias (Portugal), 10 December 1997

Re the burning of other nations' flags in the United States. Some friends regaled me once with the story of their burning a Soviet flag on the steps of the Alabama state capitol after the Soviets shot down that South Korean airliner in the mid-1980s.

Understandably, "Russki" flags were hard to come by in Alabama, so they made one out of a bedsheet dyed red and a gold handkerchief. Then, at lunchtime, when a lot of state workers came out for their breaks (made the crowd look bigger), my friends burned the flag -- having tipped off the local media that they were going to hold this event.

As I recall the story (and I don't think they were exaggerating), all the local and regional TV stations carried their protest on the news that night, and even one of the national broadcast networks had a few seconds on it, too. Not bad for a couple-buck investment in a sheet and some red dye.
Andrew Rogers (USA), 10 December 1997

I don't think I have ever seen any flag burning in Singapore. But flag-burning of the Singapore flag seems to be very common and I have seen scenes of the Filipinos burning the Singapore flag in anger of the hanging of a Filipino maid and also scenes of other nationals burning the Singapore flag in protest against caning of their nationals, etc. Seems that certain Singapore's policies upset other people - I wonder why?
Thomas Koh (Singapore), 10 December 1997

Those of us who were around in the US in the 60's and 70's can remember the jokes about protestors and demonstrators telling TV news directors that they would stage the protest at the times when it was convenient for the news cameras to be there. Mostly jokes, but some truth in it. I agree with Rich that the press and the poles exacerbate what might otherwise be a very small problem now. I'm a journalism professor & an ex-journalist who is not proud of much in today's journalism, though I don't for a moment want government to curtail free speech and press because of it.
Edmund Midura (USA), 10 December 1997

Flag burning is not very fashionable in France. I don't remember having seen it in recent years, neither the tricolour one nor foreigner's. Maybe we think that oral speech is more precise. Maybe it is because we feel that a flag represents all a nation, and not specially its government. We can be very angry against a government but we rarely show our bad thinking to all the nation.
Philippe Bondurand (France), 09 December 1997

I can remember two cases of flag burning in France:

Near the end of the 80's, in Nice, a Norwegian guy who had immoderately enjoyed 'Rose de Provence' (a fresh and therefore dangerous wine) climbed up to a pole, hoisted down a French flag and began to burn it. He was arrested and sued, had to pay a fine and spent some days in jail. If he selected the French flag randomly between all other flags displayed here was not said.

A few years ago, groups of French agriculturists wanting to show their rejection of American policy attacked the local administrative building of Coca-Cola near Paris and burnt an American flag. I don't think they really tried to make the difference between American nation and government, since they attacked American symbols, whatever they were If I had to protest against American policy, I personally would not burn an American flag, knowing the strange relationship the American citizens have with their flag.

Near Switzerland, where many Swiss have bought houses in France and have hoisted a Swiss flag on a pole (this is common in Switzerland but considered as totally disrespectful and aggressive in France), there were periodically some local night 'expeditions' to hoist down the flag and burn it, but fortunately these demonstrations of extreme stupidity progressively have become extinct.

Going further back in the history, I imagine that most Nazi flags hoisted in France during 1940-44 were burned during the Liberation celebrations. I have no idea of what happened during WWI. As it was a kind of tribal war, I imagine that desecrating the enemy's flag was very important, but I have no data to support this idea. I imagine that getting a German flag was much more difficult than today, and reduced the number of burning acts.
Ivan Sache (France), 09 December 1997

The American sensitivity towards this issue might not be exclusive. Perhaps it is North American (at least). I know that Canadians get really upset when there is a flag burning incident here ; Nick even told us about a time when W. Smith gave his advise to a federal commission on a possible law against the burning of the Maple Leaf.

In Quebec, the "Brockville incident" is still famous : a few people from Brockville (Ontario) were shown on TV wiping their feet on the Quebec flag during the Meech Lake period. The images were shown over and over in Quebec, while the support for independence kept rising (not for that reason, it was because of Meech Lake mainly, but this incident was seen as a very strong symbol of English-Canadian intolerance).
Luc-Vartran Baronian (Canada), 09 December 1997

If I were a Quebecois I too would have been very insulted by such an incident and rightly so. But in free countries we don't outlaw insults. I think that's the crux of it all.
Christopher A. Young (USA), 10 December 1997

This is about flag burning in the US by Americans or more generally by people in democratic countries burning their country's flag. I've never gotten excited about flag burning, although I confess that it has at times made me sad about my comrades, some of whom I felt deeply about who died in Normandy and Luxembourg (and elsewhere). Flag burning is almost always motivated by a desire to shock and hurt and while it now is officially constitutionally protected (it wasn't BTW in the 30s and 40s, when even radical demonstrations normally protected themselves by flying the flag), I find it hard to regard it as a basic democratic freedom (Desecrating the Swiss or cantonal flags is a violation of the Swiss criminal code), but I also find it more sensible to deny people who show bad manners the pleasure of seeing my annoyance, just as under most circumstances I will do the same for personal insults.
Norman M. Martin (USA), 10 December 1997

Just a note based on observing this thread: it is interesting that when most of the American respondents think of flag burning, they think of disaffected Americans burning American flags, whereas most non-Americans have discussed people burning the flag of a country not their own in protest of that country's policies. (Ironically enough, that flag is often the American flag too.)

I have no idea on the numbers of American flags vs. non-American flags burned in this country -- I rather suspect that the number of US flags burned is minute compared to the size of the political uproar -- but the burning of foreign flags has zero visibility on the public radar here. I can only remember one instance, and I remember being a little shocked by it. On the US East coast, the Gulf War started in the late evening; the next morning on the news I saw a group of young American men on a darkened street, burning an Iraqi flag and shouting.

One non-Stars-&-Stripes flag that might get burned more often than most is the "Confederate Battle Flag" (yes, I know that's a misnomer, but you all know what I'm talking about). Today I was in a records store and saw a CD by a rap artist (didn't catch the name). The cover of the album featured the blue saltire with stars, but the orange field was replaced by flames, and the saltire appeared to be on fire too. The name of the album was "No More Glory," presumably a reference to "Southern Glory?"
Joshua Fruhlinger (USA), 09 December 1997

After Edmund's initial post on this subject I had a thorough look at The Flag Burning Page again yesterday (at a location with a very fast connection!). An excellent site - like Edmund refers to, the whole issue is hijacked and distorted by publicity-hungry elected members. The issue is a quick, reliable source of publicity for unscrupulous politicians who know how to press the right buttons.
David Cohen (Australia), 10 December 1997

My thanks to all of you who have gotten into this discussion of flag-burning. I have been saving the comments, and some of them will be used as fodder for discussion in my classes. I think it will be instructive for my students to hear comments from non-Americans about how relatively rabid we Americans are on this issue. My personal opinion is that we wouldn't be quite so rabid if there weren't opportunistic politicians trying to gain votes with their posings and posturing on this issue.
Edmund Midura (USA), 09 December 1997