A burning issue; Is flag desecration a fundamental freedom?; Just for kids

Why would someone who loves America burn an American flag? Ask Graeme Zielinski, who was a senior at the University of Wisconsin in 1995. That year, he burned a flag on the campus square in Madison.

"I went to the square with some lighter fluid and a flag seeking only to protest the effort to make my protest illegal," Zielinski wrote in a newspaper article last year.


He was upset about efforts by lawmakers to pass laws against flag burning. Four years after he staged his one-man protest, the debate still smolders.

This year, Congress is expected to debate whether to add an amendment to the Constitution making it illegal to burn or destroy the American flag in protest.


Depending on whom you ask, the amendment is either a way to show patriotism and respect for our national symbol -- or unpatriotic because it restrains free speech.

"We're not driven by a desire to penalize anyone, but to return the flag to its proper place of honor," Marty Justis said. As executive director of the Citizens Flag Alliance, Justis represents 136 groups supporting a flag-protection amendment.

"For veterans, the flag means something very, very special," Justis said. "It's the symbol under which they rallied, and holds no greater meaning than when placed on the coffin of a deceased veteran. We see the flag as a symbol of sacrifice, love, all that we stand for."

But freedom of speech is guaranteed under the First Amendment. Many people who burn or destroy flags are protesting government policies, opponents say.

"I don't like flag burning," Zielinski said. "But just because something is repulsive to me doesn't mean it should be outlawed. Most totalitarian states such as Iraq make it illegal to destroy (national) symbols. But we're better than that."

The federal government and 48 states enforced anti-flag burning laws until 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled those laws unconstitutional.

Pub Date: 03/11/99