A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation’s flag. . . reads chiefly in the flag the government, the principles, the truths, the history which belongs to the nation that sets it forth.
Henry Ward Beecher, The American Flag
It is time for an update, albeit belatedly, on things in China that though trivial in the eyes of some, are central to the concerns of others in the governments of those two countries. I refer, of course, to the flag. China has ruled. The United States Congress may.
Long time readers of this column will recall that this subject was last visited in 1999. Ng Kung Siu and Lee Kin Yun had been convicted by the Magistrate of Hong Kong of violating the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance and the Regional Flag and Regional Emblem Ordinance. Those ordinances criminalize desecration of the national and regional flags and the question presented to the court was whether that criminalization was inconsistent with the guarantee of the freedom of expression that Chinese citizens, like U.S. citizens, enjoy. The magistrate found it was not and imposed a deferred sentence. Hong Kong’s court of appeals, following the lead of the United States Supreme Court that had ruled in 1989 that defacing the flag was protected as a form of free expression, reversed the conviction. In a 21-page opinion, however, the Court of Final Appeal reversed the lower court saying that Hong Kong “is at the early stage of the new order following resumption of the exercise of sovereignty by the People’s Republic of China. The implementation of the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ is a matter of fundamental importance, as is the reinforcement of national unity and territorial integrity. Protection of the national flag and the regional flag from desecration. . . will play an important part in the attainment of these goals. In these circumstances, there are strong grounds for concluding that the criminalization of flag desecration is a justifiable restriction on the guaranteed right to the freedom of expression.”
This correspondent was remiss in not reporting the holding of the Court of Final Appeal but it seemed unimportant, however, since by then the United States Congress had abandoned its efforts to amend the constitution to permit enactment of legislation making it a crime to burn the flag. Now, thanks to Tom DeLay, it is once again a burning issue and this report though overdue, is nonetheless timely.
The House has approved a constitutional amendment that says: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” Of course Mr. DeLay and his minions cannot accomplish this alone. They need the U.S. Senate to join in the effort and then, since it is a constitutional amendment, the approval of 37 states within 7 years. If that happens Congress will be empowered to make it a crime to burn the American flag. That will put us squarely in line with China. Some may wonder why this is an important issue. The Citizens Flag Alliance answers the question. It keeps track of all of the flag desecration incidents in the United States and a review of its fine work makes it obvious why legislation is vital to our well-being.
In 2003 there were six episodes of flag burning in the United States, four of them taking place in March, a particularly bad month. One person’s flag was burned in front of his house although no one knows by whom or why. Another was burned in front of CNN News because it hadn’t been giving enough attention to protesters of the Iraq war and the igniter generally disapproved of CNN’s coverage of the war.
2004 was a down year. There were only three reported instances although one, in Montpelier, Vt. involved several separate instances including a flag placed on a statue of the Virgin Mary and set on fire. Whether the protester disliked the flag or the Virgin or perhaps both, was unclear.
In the mid-90s there was a rash of flag burnings that were motivated in part by such things as students’ displeasure with a dress code at Holmes High School in San Antonio, Texas and in another instance, an apparent dislike of Graham Greene’s writing since his novel and a flag were burned together. Thus far in 2005 there have been 10 instances of flag desecration.
The foregoing make it abundantly clear why a constitutional amendment is needed. The Senate, and if the amendment passes there, the rest of the country, will spend hundreds of hours discussing the amendment. When the Senate finishes, time permitting, it may address some other issues facing the country, such as tax cuts for the wealthy, ways to protect large corporations from the environment and other things that matter to those over whom the flag waves.