The Constitution of the United States is one of the most truly revolutionary documents of political theory ever penned by mankind. It grants an enormous amount of power, authority, and autonomy to the individual citizen and makes each American a sovereign power unto ourselves. A big part of this empowerment comes from the recognition in the Bill of Rights that there are certain powers, rights, and privileges that are beyond the power of the government. The BoR does not “grant” citizens these rights, it merely recognizes them and places them off-limits to the interference and control of the government. It’s worth pointing out that in the First Amendment, several of these rights are laid out, including the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the freedom to assemble and protest the government. These rights were placed first in the list, grouped together under the umbrellas of the First Amendment because they were considered to be among the most important and necessary to the preservation of freedom and liberty of the individual.
Today at least one of those rights is under a direct assault that is coming from an unlikely source: the newly elected President.
President-elect Trump, in a recent Tweet, suggested that people who burn the American flag should face jail time and possible loss of citizenship as a punishment. This would be incredibly troubling to hear from anyone who has a large stake in the political scene in America, but it is especially frightening to hear coming from the man who was just elected to the highest office in the land and who will be taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution in a few short months. Perhaps Mr. Trump is unaware of the First Amendment or perhaps he is unaware of the fact that the “Freedom of Speech” so many people tout extends to more than just words spoken in a conversation or written on a page. Troubling as that level of ignorance would be in a newly elected national leader, it would be far preferable to the alternative.
The truth of the matter is Trump is well aware of what the First Amendment says and what it means. In fact, I imagine Mr. Trump has a whole host of lawyers and legal advisors offering him advice on just that, though I have no idea what advice they are offering or if he’s willing to listen to it. One thing, however, is abundantly clear from his very public statement about flag burning (a protected act of political protest, by the way). Mr. Trump doesn’t care.
He doesn’t care that the First Amendment was written and enshrined at the very beginning of the Bill of Rights specifically to protect those acts of expression with which the majority of the population disagrees. He doesn’t care that there have been multiple Supreme Court cases dealing with free expression that have determined that First Amendment protection applies to far more than words either spoken or on the page. And he doesn’t care about the SCOTUS case ruling in Texas v. Johnson that explicitly protects burning the American flag as an act of “symbolic speech of a political nature.”
The problem is Mr. Trump obviously disagrees with burning the American flag, and on that we share common ground. I come from a family with a very long and illustrious history of serving this nation in the armed forces. I have relatives on both sides of my family tree that have served in the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. My father was a graduate of the US Naval Academy, a former pilot, and a twenty three year career officer and he steadfastly supported peoples’ right to protest by burning the flag, as do I.
You see, my father and I realize what apparently Mr. Trump and his devout adherents don’t—the protection offered in the First Amendment is specifically intended for those acts of speech and expression which I, and the majority of Americans, find abhorrent and disgusting. Popular speech rarely needs protecting as it is…well…popular. It is easy to support the ideas of freedom and liberty when we are applying those principles to people who agree very closely with our own belief systems, but it is much more difficult to do so when we disagree very strongly with the person or the act in question. But that is when the adherence to the principles of Freedom, Liberty, and Independence matter the most.
Burning the American flag as an act of protest certainly falls into this unpopular expression category. I find it personally insulting, disgusting, abhorrent, disrespectful, etc. etc. etc. But let me be absolutely clear: Burning the American flag is NOT treason, it is NOT illegal, and it is NOT grounds to revoke a person’s citizenship. In fact, having the courage to exercise such a flagrant and openly defiant act of political dissidence is, at its heart, very much in keeping with the highest ideals and traditions of the American character.
I am disturbed by how many people I have seen on Twitter and Facebook actively encouraging and supporting Trump’s outlandish threats concerning the free expression of political dissidence. The ability to speak one’s mind and express oneself freely and without fear of political oppression or persecution has long been the hallmark of an active political life in America. To disregard and abandon that in support of a charismatic and wildly authoritarian leader would be to betray everything America, and America’s flag, represents.
I am personally calling on all Americans who read these words and love liberty, freedom, independence, and the Constitution to stand up in support and defense of their fellow countrymen. Whether or not you agree with how a person exercises their rights and freedoms is, or rather should be, immaterial to whether you support their ability to exercise those rights and freedoms. We cannot afford to sit idly by as this assault on the First Amendment is carried out at the highest levels of government lest we find ourselves one day under the thumb of the same tyranny of the majority.