Flag desecration and free speech
Thursday, November 17, 2011
This would have upset Jack Keller. A resident of Wenatchee displays from his home an American flag. On the flag in bold black letters is a political message relating to support of the “99 percent” and other matters sympathetic with the Occupy Wall Street protests.
The political message would not have bothered Keller. The defacing of a U.S. flag most definitely would have. Keller for years was the Wenatchee area’s flag etiquette ... let’s say coach. A World War II veteran, when it came to the flag and how it should be treated and displayed he was an occasional scold, or a passionate advocate, or an educator, whatever it took to make the point. It was a serious matter. The flag deserves respect as a symbol of our country. There are rules and protocol. It is written in U.S. law.
Keller is not here to advise. He died Friday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day. He passed very near 11 a.m., his friends tell me. This flag issue fell to Ralph Olson, Vietnam veteran and captain of the honor guard for American Legion Post 10. Olson heard of the flag, and Monday went to the home where it was displayed. He pointed out to people there that regardless of politics, writing a message on a flag is a violation of the U.S. Flag Code, Sec. 8, Paragraph G (“The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.”) People at the house rebuffed Olson. He called the police. He wanted to make a citizen’s arrest. The police told him there was nothing they could do. “It’s desecrating our flag. You don’t take our flag and write all over it and display it too boot,” Olson said.
That’s where the issue should end. The flag represents a land of liberty where the right to freely express political ideas sometimes trumps even the sanctity of our national symbol. The First Amendment to the Constitution, where freedoms are codified, forbids laws abridging freedom of speech. Writing on your flag, displaying it on your property, is a form of speech protected by the law of the land. The Supreme Court has ruled as much, more than once. That does not mean it is not offensive, disgusting, highly inappropriate, or that desecration of flags is politically persuasive. In this case the First Amendment protects this flag desecrator’s right to convey his political message in an offensive manner.
But Olson is right. He has as much right to be upset and offended by someone’s political message as the desecrator has a right convey it. This flag defacement is contrary to the Flag Code, no doubt. But the Flag Code is in essence advisory. It carries no penalties, criminal or civil. If it did there would be more trouble, because so many people pay so little attention to the Flag Code’s clear rules of etiquette.
That kept Jack Keller busy. He reminded the owners of tattered flags that they should be replaced, even if they flew from a truck bumper. He reminded Link Transit that flag decals on buses had to be displayed with the blue union facing forward. He reminded Chelan County its pavilion had to place the U.S. flag to the right, which forced the county to spend thousands to correct its pole placement mistakes. The flag should not be sewn into clothing, used as apparel or in advertising or impressed on paper napkins that will be used to wipe your mouth, Keller would tell you. That’s in the Flag Code.
Respect for our national symbol should be expected. I was grateful to Keller, and Olson, for reminding me how important this is. This, however, is the land of the free, where even disrespect is protected. It is sometimes hard to take, but the flag would mean just a little less if that were not true.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.
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