For Flags Sake: Freedom and the flag

A law enforcement officer takes Gregory "Joey" Johnson into custody after he started to burn an American flag in Cleveland, during the third day of the Republican convention. President-elect Donald Trump said Tuesday that anyone who burns an American flag should face unspecified "consequences," such as jail or a loss of citizenship _ a move that was ruled out by the Supreme Court nearly three decades ago. (John Minchillo/AP)

In the aftermath of a contentious election season filled with so many highs and lows, many are left wondering what it even means to be “American.” In fear and frustration, many have taken to the streets of the United States, utilizing their First Amendment right to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest to make their voices heard.

Whether you’re a staunch Trump supporter touting his victory as a step forward for the United States or someone who has vocally voiced their opposition for someone they deem unfit for public office, we all hold this freedom close to our hearts. This right is one of the many that unite us all, regardless of race, creed or sexuality under one united flag. However, in the recent weeks of flag burnings, desecrations and in cases like those witnessed at Hampshire College where the flag doesn’t even fly, a retrospective seems to be in order. This is a tale of two extremes, but with one common theme—freedom.

An almost normalized image nowadays, across the country many are voicing their dissatisfaction over the outcome of the 2016 presidential election by burning the American flag. Often a tactic utilized by the Taliban, ISIS and America’s enemies, the act is extremely symbolic in nature. In a time where nationalist fervor has reached new heights worldwide, such acts on the part of protestors have been attacked, with critics voicing that the act of flag-burning is wholly “un-American.”

This is further complicated with many criticizing the action as a desecration to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to family, country and all the liberty and freedom that has been preserved because of such sacrifice.

On his Twitter, of all places, president-elect Donald Trump made his own case for those who partake in the act of flag-burning. “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 tweeted. Trump made his appeal for swift “justice,” and to the surprise of no one, he once again contradicted himself.

In a 2015 interview with David Letterman, just months before he would officially launch his campaign, Letterman remarked over his support of flag burning as a demonstration of “the very freedom the flag stands for,” to which Trump responded: “Sure. You’re 100 percent right,” Trump said. “I understand where you’re coming from. It’s terrific,” he added.

The idea of burning the flag is nothing new, and the court precedents surrounding the issue go back to Texas v. Johnson in the 80’s. For burning a flag in protest of the Reagan Administration’s policies, protestor Greg Johnson was arrested on grounds of “desecrating the flag.”

Taken to the Supreme Court, flag-burning was upheld as an expression of free-speech, thus protected by the First Amendment. “Burning the flag is a form of expression… If it were up to me, I would put in jail every sandal-wearing, scruffy-bearded weirdo who burns the American flag. But I am not king,” said noted conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who many conservatives and myself still hold in extremely high regard..

To the average American, the flag represents more than a piece of patterned fabric. It is a symbol. A symbol for a nation who prides itself on its values, its liberty and above all its freedom to allow its people to profess their opinions freely, peacefully and to the fullest extent of the law. In one of the great ironies of our society, the very act of burning the flag is representative of what the flag itself stands for.

From the perspective of those, including myself in fact, like Scalia that appear to be “contradicting ourselves,” this reality seems difficult to accept. However, to truly understand and appreciate how truly great our freedoms are in this country, we must realize that in upholding the Constitution, in some cases, such as flag-burning, we cannot always get what we want.

And in regards to the events taking place at Hampshire College: “As the very symbol of a country that allows such protest to take place, it should be honored, not hidden away. If it’s burned again, it should be flown again,” as said by Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi. The minute we lose sense of who we are, and what our core values are as Americans that unite all of us under one nation and one flag, is when this nation is in big trouble.


Nick Guarna is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at nicholas.guarna@uconn.edu.