Trump floats jail, loss of citizenship for US flag burners

An anti-Trump protester sets fire to a US flag in Burlingame, California. — YouTube screengrab
An anti-Trump protester sets fire to a US flag in Burlingame, California. — YouTube screengrab

WASHINGTON, Nov 29 — President-elect Donald Trump said today he wants to impose punishment on people who burn American flags, possibly including imprisonment or loss of US citizenship.

Trump floated the sanctions, which would run counter to a 1989 US Supreme Court ruling, in an early-morning tweet.

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Trump said.

“The president-elect is a very strong supporter of the First Amendment. But I also think there’s a big difference between that and burning the American flag, which has absolutely no place in our society,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said on CNN shortly afterward. “Flag burning should be illegal.”

The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the case Texas v. Johnson that burning a flag is a form of political expression protected under the First Amendment and cannot be made illegal.

Flag desecration emerged as a political issue amid the convulsions of the 1960s after some Vietnam War opponents began burning flags as a form of protest. In the decades that followed, punishment of flag-burning became a cultural flash-point in tensions over deference to patriotic norms versus protection of the right to dissenting expression.

Congress, courts

Following the 1989 Supreme Court decision, Congress passed a new law banning flag-burning, which was also overturned in a subsequent Supreme Court case. Efforts to amend the constitution to prohibit flag-burning have fallen short of the two-thirds majority needed in both chambers of Congress. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky provided the crucial vote to stop a 2006 attempt in the Senate that failed to meet the threshold by a single vote.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said today on MSNBC that “where I come from, you honour the flag,” while acknowledging the Supreme Court “has upheld” the protection of flag burning under the US Constitution. “We’ll protect our First Amendment,” he said.

Republican Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin said on CNN that the constitutional right to free expression is ultimately more important than protecting the flag from desecration.

“I love my flag and I love what it stands for and I hate those who want to go out and burn it,” Duffy said, “but I think the court is probably right in that we want to protect those people who want to protest.”

Neither Trump nor Miller explained what prompted the president-elect’s statement, though US flags reportedly have been burned in at least two anti-Trump protests in recent weeks.

Students at American University in Washington DC burned flags in an anti-Trump protest Nov. 9, the day after the election, according to the Washington Post. Students at Hampshire College in Massachusetts burned a flag on Nov. 10, prompting the school to temporarily stop flying the national banner and other flags, according to CNN.

“Around 1,000” veterans gathered at Hampshire College on Sunday to protest the school’s decision, Fox News reported, citing local news coverage.

Asked by the New York Times last week whether he was committed to the First Amendment — without discussing flag-burning specifically — Trump told a group of the newspaper’s journalists and other representatives, “I think you’ll be happy.” — Bloomberg

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