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Flag-Burning Evokes Larger Issues Than the Flag Itself

Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois spoke on the flag-burning amendment in the House June 28. Some of his remarks follow.

AT work here is something larger than the flag itself: It is a protest against the vulgarization, the trashing of our society. This amendment asserts that our flag is not just a piece of cloth, but, like a family picture on your desk, it represents certain unifying ideals most Americans hold sacred....

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It represents the "unum" in the "e pluribus unum" of our country, and as tombstones are not for toppling, as churches and synagogues and places of worship are not for vandalizing, flags are not for burning.

Some of our critics have accused us of trivializing the Constitution. With great respect, I believe it is they who trivialize democracy itself, by reducing it to a matter of process over the substance of democracy, equal protection, due process, and the majestic values so timelessly expressed in our Declaration of Independence, our country's birth certificate: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Free speech is protected by this amendment.... This amendment takes free speech a dimension forward and it validates the duties and the responsibilities that are part and parcel of every right that exists....

There are well-defined limits to freedom of speech: obscenity laws, perjury, slander, libel, copyright laws, classified information, agreements in restraint of trade, and the old "yelling fire" where there is no fire in a crowded theater.

The question is, is that list commodious enough to include flag desecration? Somebody tell me why it is a federal crime to burn a $20 bill but it is OK to burn a flag. Too many men have marched behind the flag. Too many have returned in a wooden box with the flag as their own blanket. Too many parents and kids and wives have clutched to their grieving bosom a folded triangle of the American flag as the last remembrance of their loved one not to honor and revere that flag.

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