Defending Free Speech Is More Important Than Flag Burning Ban

Just as Americans are beginning to be persuaded that corporate leftists are attempting to censor the speech of those on the political Right, President Trump wants to ban a form of free expression.

In a Saturday tweet, Trump praised Senator Steve Daines’ amendment to make it illegal to burn the American flag.

It’s not clear what prompted the Montana Republican to propose such a bill. There is no epidemic of flag burnings and no recent major demonstration, apart from the odd Antifa protest in Portland or Oakland, has featured this ugly practice. Can you remember the last time you saw an American burn a flag?

Yet, for whatever reason, this has become a major concern for the Trump Administration. At a moment when the president is needed in the fight for free speech, he appears instead to encourage certain suppression of it.

Some of the arguments for the flag burning ban sound vaguely similar to the ignorant screeds of social justice warriors.

Blexit leader Candace Owens said if she were president, she would strip flag burners of their citizenship and give it instead to “LEGAL immigrants.” Owens said a flag-burning ban was right because the First Amendment doesn’t protect all speech, suggesting that falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater and uttering hate speech against minorities are not covered by the First Amendment.

Leftists who urge tech giants and colleges to censor conservatives make essentially the same claims. “Hate speech isn’t free speech” is a leftist rallying cry to silence those who challenge progressive orthodoxy.

You could easily see a leftist demand immigration restrictionists have their citizenship revoked and given to foreign nationals. That leftist would also claim the First Amendment doesn’t cover alleged hate speech in her desire to rid America of those who want immigration reduced.

Like alleged hate speech, flag burning is and ought to be constitutionally protected.

The U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago ruled it unconstitutional to ban flag burning. The unquestionably conservative Justice Antonin Scalia concurred with that ruling. “If I were king, I would not allow people to go about burning the American flag. However, we have a First Amendment, which says that the right of free speech shall not be abridged,” Scalia said in a 2012 CNN interview. “Burning the flag is a form of expression. Speech doesn’t just mean written words or oral words . . . Burning a flag is a symbol that expresses an idea.”

There are sensible reasons why you wouldn’t want Americans burning the flag. It’s a cherished national symbol that represents the many men and women who died for it. Patriots should naturally detest the act and those who would dare desecrate such a glorious symbol.

Legal scholar Stephen Presser articulated a reasonable case for a ban earlier this week. In Presser’s view, flag burning is more akin to an “inarticulate grunt” than actual speech. It only seeks to “sow discord” and incite rather than articulate an opinion.

While it is true that flag burnings are deplorable provocations, this same argument could be applied to a wide spectrum of free expression. Liberals could say right-wing memes are not articulate speech and amount to incitement. Thus, we need to ban those, too. Any opinion a liberal labels “hateful” could fall under the “not articulate speech” category.

In short, conservatives risk fortifying left-wing totalitarianism with arguments for the flag-burning ban.

However well-meaning a flag-burning ban may be, 2019 is not the time to fight over it. There are several other pressing issues more deserving of the limited political capital Trump and the Republicans have going into 2020, such as Big Tech censorship.

Trump has tweeted that he is monitoring the situation, but he has done nothing about it. The same goes for most congressional Republicans. A bill was finally proposed this week by Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) that would amend communications law to insist platforms operate as neutral forums. That’s a good first step, but much more needs to be done. Congress can’t let tech giants potentially sway the 2020 election with censorship and biased algorithms. Trump and Republicans need to back Hawley’s bill and look at other methods—such as hearings on Big Tech’s election interference—to tackle the problem.

Confronting Big Tech censorship is far more pressing than a flag-burning ban. These platforms operate as the town squares of our time. Nearly half of Americans get their news from social media. Those same Americans share their opinions on social media every day and those discussions drive the national conversation.

If you’re barred from social media, you’re effectively unpersoned. This has happened to numerous conservative personalities—and it’s only getting worse.

YouTube’s recent purge underscores this point. Dozens of channels were suspended and demonetized simply because journalists were upset that conservatives were allowed a platform on YouTube. Left-wing journalists still are not satisfied, and they will demand more blood in the future.

The Right can’t operate in the 21st century if it doesn’t have access to the digital town square.

A few liberal billionaires now shape the discourse and determine what views are acceptable.

The threat Big Tech poses is far worse than a gaggle of Antifa cowards burning the flag on a Portland street corner.

The flag ban proposal undermines the Right’s mission to protect free speech. Conservatives must fight against censorship within Big Tech and college campuses. Trump signed an executive order in March that would block federal funding to public universities that fail to protect free expression. It looks hypocritical to complain about the speech suppression of tech giants and liberal university deans when you want to outlaw a legal form of speech.

Defending the flag ban would require its advocates to make the same arguments as those advanced by Candace Owens. Conservatives unwittingly would be supporting the arguments of tech censors and university administrators. Rather than owning the few commies who burn the flag, conservatives would just own themselves.

Acknowledging the legality of flag burning does not make one a supporter of that awful act. It simply means you know the law and believe the protection of free speech is more important than punishing a handful of kooks.

Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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