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Statement of Senator Herb Kohl on the Constitutional Amendment to Ban Flag Desecration

Location: Washington, DC


Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I have long opposed the Constitutional amendment on flag desecration. Today, support for our national symbol is stronger than ever. Thus, this amendment is as unnecessary today as it was in past years.

Millions of Americans have fought and died for our country. They fought for each of us, and for the very freedoms we hold dear. In fact, they are doing so today in Afghanistan and Iraq. These brave men and women do so because they love their country, and for that, we honor them and will be forever indebted to them. But, we would be doing them a disservice if we amended the Constitution to place limits on one of the most important freedoms they fight to defend -- the freedom of speech.

Those who speak out against this amendment, and those of us who will vote against it today, are not doing so to advocate flag desecration, or to diminish what the flag symbolizes. The opposite is true. We do not condone or encourage flag desecration. In fact, all of us find those acts reprehensible. Yet, our disapproval of those acts, by itself, does not mean a constitutional amendment is necessary or justified. The First Amendment has long stood for the essential principle that our government should not seek to tell people how to say something any more than it should tell them what to say, no matter how strongly the rest of us may disagree.

All Americans have the right to voice their opinions, regardless of how unpopular they may be. The First Amendment has protected this right for more than two hundred years. Even unpopular speech has value. In some cases, a minority of Americans have used their voices to spark much needed change in this country. In others, such as flag desecration, unpopular speech further enhances our feelings of patriotism. These rights, no matter how disagreeable on their face, are worth protecting.

The debate over this amendment began seventeen years ago, when the Supreme Court decided the Texas v. Johnson case. The Court held that the right to desecrate an American flag as a method of speech is protected by the First Amendment. Since this case was decided in 1989, we have not seen a surge in flag burnings in our streets or on our courthouse steps. And we have not seen the strong feelings Americans have for their freedom, or the flag itself, diminish in any way. If anything, our love for the flag has become stronger. This was particularly true after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, when more Americans than ever before began flying flags outside their homes and placing flag decals on their cars.

The Constitution should be amended with extreme caution, and only in the most limited circumstances. Amending it to preserve something that is not in jeopardy could set a precedent for censoring other forms of legitimate speech. Those who desecrate the flag only make the rest of us value our flag, our freedoms, and those who have given their lives to protect them even more. Our flag and the principles it represents will survive any ill-conceived desecration by a few protesters. A Constitutional amendment is unnecessary because the strength of the American people and their unwavering support for our country and our national symbol will make certain of that. These are the reasons why I will vote no on this amendment today.

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