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THE IMAGE of an American flag burned in protest is deeply offensive to many in this country. The Stars and Stripes carries too much meaning for its desecration not to cause that reaction; that's why protestors burn it. It's a questionable tactic (and so standard a practice in some parts of the world, one wonders why they bother). Who is persuaded by such lunacy? It's a sign of fanaticism, and its practitioners gain little from the exercise.

But Congress seems intent on making matters far worse. Last week, the House voted 286-130 to approve a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. In years past, this could be dismissed as mere pandering, but there's a chance the Senate may actually follow suit next month. Americans should find this deeply offensive. If the U.S. flag symbolizes anything, it symbolizes the principles on which this nation was founded, and one of the most important of these is free speech. We can hate flag burning, but we can't deny it's a form of political expression.

If the burning of the flag can shock us into curbing free speech, what other freedoms may be jeopardized? Surely, those who hate our country will be delighted by such a willingness to back away from our convictions -- and all for the burning of a bit of cloth. A symbol is ultimately just a symbol. It's our principles that require our most vigilant protection.

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