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Flag amendment would prohibit desecration

Oct. 26, 2004

Finding a picture in your mailbox of a stranger donning only a Speedo and draped in an American flag might be alarming.

Paint a swastika on that flag and the photo is downright disturbing.

"He was almost wacko," said Sam Gaskill, a former Republican state representative and Vietnam War veteran. "He wrote all kinds of stuff, threatening me. He was a veteran. He had retired from the Air Force. He said that's why he was in the military ' to protect the rights of dissent."

The photograph, accompanied by a two-page handwritten letter, was sent to Gaskill in 2000, in protest of the Washburn representative's proposed measure to limit flag desecration.

And though Gaskill said his bill ' which would have allowed bystanders to "rescue" a desecrated flag from protesters forcefully and avoid assault charges ' failed at least three times. Its relevance is evident in the upcoming U.S. Senate session.

Lawmakers might vote on a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration for the fourth time since 1990. The bill passed in the U.S. House in a 300-125 vote last year.

The proposal must pass the Senate and be approved by at least three-fourths of the states within seven years to become an amendment. The lengthy process causes some supporters to question the proposal's necessity.

"I do want respect for the flag, but that's a long, drawn-out process of ratification," Gaskill said. "I support it, but it seems like we should have been able to do something simpler earlier."

The relative rarity of legislation to ban flag desecration adds to that hesitancy. According to the Citizen's Flag Alliance, 122 acts of flag burning or desecration were cited between 1989 and 2003.

There was only one incident in Missouri in those years.

In 1999, Springfield resident Dorothy Parker's flag, along with yellow ribbons honoring three U.S. captives in the former Yugoslavia, was stolen and burned.

"If you look at those incidents, at least two-thirds of them involved acts that would be fully constitutional to punish, and which are likely illegal under state and local laws," said Perry Lange, a spokesman for People for the American Way. "Those are incidents where somebody steals your flag and burns it."

Despite that rarity, proponents of flag-desecration limits need a constitutional amendment to overturn 1989 and 1990 Supreme Court cases declaring flag burning and desecration as protected forms of free speech.

Critics of the proposed amendment cite the potential jeopardy of those free-speech rights, arguing the proposal is restrictive.

"Particularly problematic is that people generally aren't desecrating flags because they support a federal policy," Lange said. "They're against the government. So, by restricting flag desecration, what you're really doing is not only curbing speech, but curbing speech that criticizes the government."

But, it is that very right to free speech Gaskill said he wanted to protect with his earlier bills.

"Why can't somebody else come up, stomp out the burning flag, pick it up, and fold it up to be disposed of properly?" Gaskill said.

Gaskill emphasized his bills were not designed to permit the use of force, but to allow offended bystanders to intervene after a flag's desecration.

"It's somewhat stifling, I think, for the freedom of speech of those who want to show respect for the flag," Gaskill said. "For him to do nothing, because he can't, legally, that somewhat limits his rights also."

As a Vietnam veteran, Gaskill said his tendency toward flag protection is warranted.

"When all you see in the battlefield is graves and blood, the old U.S. flag represents a lot: home, the church, community, family, picnics, everything," Gaskill said. "That's what irritates me about people showing disrespect."

Rick Jones, spokesman for American Veterans, confirmed Gaskill's supposition, saying most veterans support the amendment process.

"Our members firmly support the constitutional process, which allows the people of the United States to decide the issue," Jones said. "If they believe the Supreme Court has misinterpreted an issue, it is up to the people to decide the issue. Not a court of nine or 11 individuals."

Jones added that 80 percent of Americans, not just veterans, support the amendment, according to a 2002 Citizen's Flag Alliance poll.

"It's fairly clear in the minds of most individuals that what they see in the flag is a nation, and that nation is the hope of mankind," Jones said. "Burning the flag is the same as burning the nation. It is disrespectful. It is an act of violence against all that we cherish."

Lange noted that question-wording, however, can significantly impact poll results.

"When folks and proponents have done polls that say 'would you support an amendment to ban flag desecration?' a majority of American people will say 'yes, I support that," Lange said. "When you ask, 'would you support amending the First Amendment to prohibit the desecration of the flag?' an overwhelming number of people say 'no, I don't support that.'"

Lange said 59 percent of people in a recent poll did not support altering the First Amendment.

"When people realize that this amendment could restrict their rights to free speech, they're very skeptical," he said.

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