Opposing Flag-Burning With Violence Trashes Freedom

Gene PolicinskiCommentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

What part of patriotism makes it OK to trash one of our nation’s most-treasured rights, free speech?

A graduate student and part-time instructor at Louisiana State University, Benjamin Haas, tried yesterday to stage a protest that he initially said would involve burning an American flag. Haas said he was protesting the arrest last week of another student for stealing and burning a U.S. flag from the LSU War Memorial.

In Haas’ case, no theft was involved. He had obtained a local permit for his protest — and, according to a university statement, decided only later to speak.

According to a story in The Advocate of Baton Rouge, on arrival Haas “was surrounded by a large crowd yelling obscenities and chanting, “U-S-A” and “Go to hell, hippie, go to hell.” Water balloons and bottles were thrown at him and horse-mounted police escorted him to an official car, which drove him from the area for his own safety, the report said.

Earlier, another student tried to speak in what LSU calls “Free Speech Alley” in defense of Haas’ free-speech rights. Though she prefaced her remarks by saying she personally opposed flag-burning, she was taunted with shouts of “Whore” and “Go get your flag-burning buddy … we want him next.”

In a statement issued at the end of the day, LSU Chancellor Michael Martin chose to avoid mentioning the violence and police action, and focused on those in the crowd who didn’t throw objects or curses. An Associated Press report said about 200 students and military veterans remained after Haas left, in the area near the Student Center, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem.

“This is what a flagship university, and Free Speech Alley, is all about — good civil discourse, dialogue between all parties and discussions of diverse opinions,” Martin said in his statement. “This is how students learn from each other and grow as people. I also thought today brought out a wonderful display of patriotism among the students conducting the counter-protest.”

LSU senior Sarah Kirksey gave reporters a different and more direct spin on the confrontation: “We chased him out. He didn’t burn the flag, so it was a success,” she told The Advocate.

Burning the American flag in protest is offensive, disrespectful, demonstrably ineffective — and legal. A pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions more 20 years ago declared that a nation committed to freedom of speech must permit even this most-distasteful form of dissent.

“Chasing out” a protester may feel good at the moment, to some. And I suspect what Chancellor Martin calls “good civil discourse” will go a lot further in countering Haas’ opinion, and in encouraging respect for the flag, than a bottle or water -balloon.

Free speech — in an “alley” or anywhere else — works best as a two-way street, not a dead end.

Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.