Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Monday, July 5, 1999

Protecting the
right to burn the flag

THE Fourth of July weekend is one of my favorite holidays. It's smack-dab in the middle of summer, when it's sunny and sublime. It's time for the hibachi to blaze, Hawaiian musicians to jam and, best of all, for American flags to decorate house-fronts and flutter in the island breeze.

And when those fireworks blossomed in the sky last night, to the delight of gawking admirers of all ages, the spectacle reminded us how lucky we are to live in a free nation.

The key word is free, which my well-worn but trusty Merriam Webster defines as "having liberty; enjoying political or personal independence; made or done voluntarily."

Yet one particular freedom is again being threatened -- one that is unsavory to most citizens and certainly mentally painful to witness: the burning of the American flag.

Last month, the U.S. House voted to amend the Constitution to allow legislation banning desecration of Old Glory. Its 305-124 vote now moves the issue over to the Senate, which has balked at such a move in the past.

It's not that the senators don't want to protect the flag. They want to protect the more important ideal behind allowing it be burned.

Confused? Join the club. Ever since this controversial topic resurfaced, we have received many letters to the editor. Some of them are from veterans, who -- understandably -- are incensed that anyone could commit such a heinous act as defacing the symbol of this country.

"By what stretch of the imagination do you consider laws against desecrating the American flag to be in conflict with freedom of speech?" Roger D. Van Cleve asked in his July 3 correspondence.

"The dictionary defines speech as 'the act of speaking; the communication of thoughts and feelings by spoken words.' By your logic, destruction of property, terrorism, threats (including bomb threats), shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater, slander and various other outlawed actions should be permitted as 'freedom of speech.'"

Not exactly, Mr. Van Cleve. With all due respect, sir, the aforementioned actions -- as you pointed out -- are against the law. They victimize people or their property, endanger public safety, and can ruin individuals or businesses.

But burning the flag is not against the law, nor should it be.

ATHOUGH 99 percent of Americans would never do it, the ability for that minuscule 1 percent to torch a piece of cloth with stars and stripes on it -- to show dissatisfaction with the U.S. and its leaders -- must be protected with the same passion that we feel for this nation, especially every Fourth of July.

I have great admiration for our military men and women, past and present. I love this country and feel physically repulsed on seeing our flag destroyed during raucous and sometimes orchestrated demonstrations in other places (some of which, ironically, don't allow burning of their own flags or complaining about their own leadership).

It's the same revulsion I feel on seeing Ku Klux Klan rallies on TV and crosses being burned in effigy. But the KKK's right to peacefully and lawfully impart its message, while unsavory to most, is just as sacred in a democracy like ours.

There's one more big reason the Fourth of July weekend is my favorite holiday. More flags are flown around town than in any other month.

They are beautiful to behold and, in our hearts, they are fire-proof.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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