President Elect Trump recently tweeted that anyone who burns an American flag should face legal penalties. He gave a one-year jail sentence or revoking of citizenship as example punishments.
Many Americans are deeply offended when they see the American flag desecrated in any way. Some draw a connection between disrespecting the flag and disrespecting those who have served in the military. It is important to remember that a distinction can be drawn between the symbol of the flag, and the men and women who have served in the military. It does not necessarily represent them. Attempts to redirect all criticism of the government and all protests against the symbol of that government towards disrespect of members of the armed forces is misguided at best.
Full disclosure: because of my Christian religious convictions I do not participate in rituals that honor the American flag, or any other flag for that matter. That being said, I also make a point to not be disrespectful during such rituals as they are often carried out during public events and life would be very difficult if I avoided every place where patriotic rituals might occur.
Though many would consider me unpatriotic, and they are mostly correct, I am passionate about some of the core principles of liberal democracies like the United States. I am a huge fan of freedom of expression, especially when it comes to expression that is critical of the government. Take a look at the text of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The First Amendment helps to ensure that no one, especially the government, is above criticism. Flag burning can be a form of protest (expression) against the government. Allowing the Federal Government to criminalize expression that is critical of it is dangerous to the ideals of a liberal democracy. I think Justice Kennedy made the point well in the 1989 decision in Texas v. Johnson, which involved the desecration of an American flag in protest.
Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt. For all the record shows, this respondent was not a philosopher and perhaps did not even possess the ability to comprehend how repellent his statements must be to the Republic itself. But whether or not he could appreciate the enormity of the offense he gave, the fact remains that his acts were speech, in both the technical and the fundamental meaning of the Constitution. So I agree with the Court that he must go free. – Justice Kennedy
A free society means you will, at times, be offended. Sacred symbols will be defiled. Heroes will be maligned. Silencing these things is possible but expensive. It will cost the very idea of a free and open society. If you want the freedom to express your views here, many views you find abhorrent will also be allowed to be expressed. This is part of the high price of liberty.