Laissez Faire

Letting Life Lead

Article #16: Free to Speak, Free to Rock the Boat

In 1989, when I was fifteen, a group of Vietnam War veterans in Seattle took a post office flag and burned it along with a thousand small paper flags given out to those protesters at the demonstration.  These veterans violated a new anti-desecration law in protest of that law which they claimed was trying to enforce patriotism and encroached upon the American right to free speech.  The leaders of the protest were prosecuted and the charges were dropped by the Supreme Court who ruled that the law was unconstitutional and upheld a prior ruling (Johnson vs. Texas) that flag burning was a protected form of free speech.  Although ruled unconstitutional, the law is part of US code but is not enforced. Other attempts at getting a Flag Protection amendment  passed have failed once in 1990 and again in 2005.

Symbolic speech is protected (whether or not a group of people disagree with the message) unless the speech “incites immediate lawlessness” and even then there are other laws that cover breaching the peace first.

Current events aren’t the first time the protest of the United States flag, nor its use has come into question.  And every time an effort is made to restrict citizens from embracing the flag to symbolically protest, it is overturned or it backfires.
I thought we had come so far since I was in grammar school.

Whenever there is an outcry that a person is sitting, or not saluting, or kneeling, or silent, or saying the original words of the pledge as written by Francis Bellamy in 1891 without the added words “under god”, they have the right to do so. The constitution guarantees the freedom of non-verbal expression and in 1943 the Supreme Court even ruled that school children could not be compelled to salute the US flag.  That means, no one is compelled to say or do anything if the anthem is played or a flag is raised.

Participation is voluntary not compulsory.

Justice Robert H. Jackson said, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.

So, is the incident with the NFL and taking of a knee a desecration of the flag punishable by law (or open for a government official to rally individuals to fire and punish participants)? The courts have consistently said, no. Symbolic speech and the ideas that give them life are protected.

But, is that the right question to be asking?

Shouldn’t the question be, what is the message!?  What compels people to take a knee (an innocuous act when compared to other protests that have surrounded the US flag) if it is clear that the action will rouse at least some negative reactions? Is it a good message?  Do I agree with that message regardless of how I feel about kneeling?

It is important to acknowledge that a lot of the response from the White House has been to keep focus away from the actual message and redirected it instead towards an antiquated, unconstitutional idea that American Citizens are required to do anything concerning the flag. Such a redirection fuels the divide already present with in the country — a chasm which has been exacerbated in the last year by all that has happened and continued to happen.

We are a multi-ethnic family and my children need to know what the protest is all about without the vitriol. My words are for them:

People are being killed by the very people meant to protect them simply because they have dark skin. It is part of a bigger problem has been ignored, brushed aside, and buried. Those who speak out against it are told to not over-react.

Taking the knee is about the desecration of people and the violation of their human rights. Unfortunately, it took telling people that they weren’t allowed to kneel that got those who were too afraid to join in to finally do it.  If anyone tries to say the protest isn’t about race, you tell them it has always been about race.

When is it the right time to protest a known problem that too few want to acknowledge or can’t see? Anytime there is opportunity to get people to start talking even when they are afraid.


7 comments on “Article #16: Free to Speak, Free to Rock the Boat

  1. unfoldingfromthefog
    October 2, 2017

    This is wonderful! I wish I would have read it before I wrote the piece I posted this week. Would you mind if I put a link in my comments?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. babbitman
    October 3, 2017

    It’s interesting how the flag is such a pillar of America, plonked in schools and outside houses, revered and saluted. Over here in the UK that was considered “a bit weird”. In most of Europe national flags tend to fly from public buildings but rarely in schools and only at houses when there’s a World Cup being played. But about a dozen or so years ago I realised that more British houses were flying the Union Jack, mimicking the ubiquitous display of the Stars’n’Stripes in the US. Pompous flag waving is always a bad thing – it’s landed us with Brexit & Trump.
    So it’s pretty cool that this odd American obsession with the national flag is being used to highlight discrimination and violations of human rights.


    • Laissez Faire
      October 5, 2017

      It is rather weird. I have always thought saying the pledge in the classroom was weird, even when I was a kid. It made me feel uncomfortable and I felt like I was lying. I didn’t know what pledging was (what the heck does a six year old know about indivisible?), but it sounded serious and I never wanted to say under god (much to the horror of pretty much everyone!). As a child I enjoyed saluting to soldiers (it made sense because they respond), but not so much to the flag — if that makes sense? I don’t fly the flag at our house (though I did for 9/11 because that was an expression of solidarity in a crisis). We do break out the Fourth of July mini flags. A symbol to rally around to bring people together? I’m for it. A symbol for bullying people for not conforming? Hell, no. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • babbitman
        October 6, 2017

        I like your style. Apparently, the “under god” bit is new, only added in 1954, so you were totally within your rights to stick to the original! 😉
        When I joined the cub scouts I had to promise some tosh to the Queen and god. Even way back then I was irked by that and these days I’m an atheist with republican leanings!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Laura
    October 5, 2017

    Very well researched post. Not just opinion, but actually some history around the legal debate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laissez Faire
      October 5, 2017

      Thanks 🙂 I don’t usually write non-fiction, but when I do it’s because I’m probably riled. LOL

      Liked by 1 person

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