Summer Series #2: Flag Burning - We Must Allow It

By Riley Lewers

Since the inauguration of President Trump, discussions, or perhaps I should say arguments, about freedom of speech and freedom of the press have exploded across the country. College campuses, the supposed bastions of either free speech (if you’re liberal), or of liberal-only speech (if you’re conservative), have become the battlegrounds of this issue. Nowhere was this disconnect on display as clearly as it was following the protests earlier this year at UC Berkeley, which prevented right wing commentators Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter from speaking on campus. Some hailed this as a victory against hate speech, but others saw it as violent suppression of speech. Berkeley has long been regarded by all as a hotbed of liberalism, and lately it has been under fire for being a place that exemplifies all that is wrong with “out-of-touch coastal elites.” I don’t ascribe to these views, but I also don’t intend to discuss the rights and wrongs of the Berkeley protests. I bring up Berkeley to provide a contrast to my university, the University of Iowa.

In some ways the state of Iowa is a microcosm of the supposed divide between liberal elites and everybody else. Iowa City, with a population of about 70,000, is the home of the University of Iowa and is the area of “elite liberalism” in this landlocked, middle-America state. This small metro area, located in Johnson County on the eastern side of the state, is younger, wealthier, and more highly educated than the state as a whole. The statewide political divide is deep as well, with Iowa City being a solidly left-wing area, while the state of Iowa as a whole voted for Trump. These are the similarities between the University of Iowa and UC Berkeley, but there are also differences. The students here are, as an aggregate, nowhere near as liberal, and from my observation, do not seem to be nearly as politically engaged. Yes, there have periodically been protests here since the election, and one of them did involve the blockage of Interstate 80, but there seems to be far more locals attending these events than students, and they have all been peaceful and relatively small.

Out of all these protests, one event, involving a relatively small group of flag burners on the Iowa City pedestrian mall, caught my attention. I was not involved in this protest; while I am disappointed by recent events in this country, I do not feel driven to burn the flag, but I did pass by the protest before it was interrupted by a FedEx employee, who forcibly confiscated the burning flag and put out the fire. That interruption was the subject of much talk on campus later that week, and subsequently was mentioned by media outlets such as Fox News and The Blaze. Opponents and proponents of allowing flag burning all had something to say. At around this time, I was given an assignment in my rhetoric class to write a short speech on an issue I feel strongly about, and so I too jumped into the fray of the flag burning argument. Here is what I had to say:

Over the past week, I’ve heard much debate around campus about whether burning the flag should be allowed. This discussion has stemmed from the recent flag burning carried out by protesters on the ped mall. Many students have expressed outrage that anyone would do such a thing to our flag. I’ve heard people say that the flag is a symbol of our freedom, our rights, our American excellence; many men and women have died for our flag, and for these reasons, burning it is highly disrespectful and should be illegal. To those of you who think flag burning is disrespectful, I agree with you. Of course it is. That’s the point, but that doesn’t mean it should be illegal. A protester burns the flag in order to demonstrate that they have lost all faith in our country. That they no longer believe in our country’s ability to live up to what our flag symbolizes. And the idea that someone could feel that way about our country is supposed to be shocking. It’s supposed to be unpleasant. It’s supposed to be offensive. This is the very reason we need to protect it.

The First Amendment was not created to protect speech that is pleasant. It was created to protect the speech which we most abhor. If we truly believe in freedom, one of those thoroughly American values our flag represents, then we will continue to protect free speech rights, including flag burning. And if we truly believe that our country is strong, we should focus our energies on protecting the rights we hold dear, instead of merely the symbol of those rights.

Therefore, I suggest you’re ever angry about flag burning, get angry instead about issues with a human face and human heart behind them. Instead of spending so much time worrying about the amount of respect paid to a symbol, stand up for people. Stand up for a woman’s right to equal pay. Stand up for quality education for all children, regardless of race or class. Stand up for affordable healthcare for all. Stand up for people’s rights, for people’s freedoms. Stand up for free speech. These are the values that our men and women in uniform truly fight to protect; we should not conflate a symbol with the things it represents.  

You may not agree with flag burning, but I’m sure you can all agree that our country isn’t perfect. You would all change something about our country if you could. So do it. Exercise your right to free speech to make this country better. Use your free speech to show flag burners that there are more productive ways to critique our country than burning things down. Help build our country up. Speak up for positive change. Speak up to improve the lives of people around you. People can smile; flags can’t. People have hearts; flags don’t. The flag may be a symbol of patriotism, but the true measure of a country’s worth is not a piece of cloth, but the values of its people. We as a people should value and protect speech in all its forms. The right to criticize our country is an exceptional freedom. Protecting speech is the truest way to respect our flag, because if we lose our freedoms, our flag has no power.

Keeping flag burning legal is not an easy issue to take direct action on, but you can take simple actions on the key issue here: the right to free speech in all forms. I urge anyone who feels strongly about the issue to keep tabs on media and the government, and be aware of the ways in which the two are connected. Be wary of the direct and indirect ways in which government attempts to control the media. Be wary of heavily biased news outlets-- these are easy enough to spot. Strongly oppose any attempts to discourage voting, or take away voting rights from any group of people. A vote is speech, and it is perhaps the most important form of speech we have. Encourage others to vote, and help people register to vote-- there are plenty of groups that register voters. Get involved with voter registration efforts, especially if you are part of a group that has low voter participation (I’m looking at you students). And of course, make sure you vote, make sure you speak out in favor of what you agree with, and against what you don’t agree with. And remember, whenever you hear a form of speech you don’t like, that the best course of action is not to prevent that speech from occurring, but to speak out in opposition to it. With enough voices, right will win out. 

This post is part of the Summer Series, a six-week writing project that will feature opinions on aspects of free speech from young writers across the country. To learn more, or to contribute to the Summer Series, click here.