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Flag Burning May Be Stupid, but the Constitution Isn’t

One of my favorite Orange County people is a Fullerton man who has generously helped libraries and local charities, especially projects for youth.

His name is Tommy Lasorda.

He’s a marvelous storyteller, exudes much personal warmth and, of course, claims to bleed Dodger blue. He also expresses his dislikes with heartfelt passion. And I’m afraid he’s going to dislike this column a great deal.

Lasorda, longtime Dodgers manager and now the baseball team’s general manager, was the celebrity witness last week in a congressional hearing on flag desecration. Lasorda supports a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to make it illegal to burn or destroy the American flag in a disrespectful manner.

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Count me among the opponents of such a measure. Our Constitution has been doing just fine without it, thank you.

After Lasorda’s testimony last week, a friend of mine mentioned the old joke that you expect people who wrap themselves in the flag to be against flag burning. That fits my sentiments: You don’t have to wear your patriotism on your sleeve to love your country.

My favorite recording is Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful,” which runs through my head every time I get out to the desert or the mountains and see their grandness. My favorite story about Operation Desert Storm was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s playing Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American” before going into battle. And when I hear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I have the same reaction every time: It makes me think back to Francis Scott Key watching America under siege at Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812, only to see “by the dawn’s early light” that “our flag was still there.”

Burning that flag always seemed to me a silly form of political protest. But if it’s just something you have to do, that’s your right, the U.S. Supreme Court says. That’s why some, like Lasorda, want a constitutional amendment, to get around the high court.

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I’m not bothered by flag burners as much as I’m bothered by those who’d like to see them thrown in jail. I always worry what other symbols of protest they’d want turned into criminal offenses.

I was in college in 1968 when the great sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested American racism by hoisting black gloved fists into the air while accepting their medals at the winners stand. They timed it during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” While all my liberal classmates cheered them on, I balked that it was the wrong setting for such personal political agendas.

But banning Smith and Carlos from the Olympics for life because of it? That was a whole lot more upsetting to me than what Smith and Carlos had done. I’d feel the same if they had burned the flag.

The American Civil Liberties Union explains quite well why a flag desecration amendment is wrong for us: “Freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution cannot survive if exceptions are made every time someone in power feels offended or provoked.”

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That’s the crux of it, whether such protests are covered by the Constitution’s 1st Amendment freedom of speech protection. I’ve always believed in the Supreme Court dictum that your right to yell “fire” ends when you get to a crowded theater. But short of that, we ought to be careful which free speech acts we make against the law.

A lot of readers will disagree, of course. Like Tom Harrelson of Orange.

Harrelson, 77, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant, is one of those rare military people who fought in both World War II and Vietnam. Harrelson gained a bit of local notoriety two years ago when he and other veterans protested the Saddleback College student government dropping the Pledge of Allegiance. (It’s since been restored.)

I was moved by a story Harrelson related this week about the first time the flag became such a sacred symbol to him. A waist gunner, he flew 32 missions during World War II. At a briefing just before going into battle one day, he saw a young man in his outfit caressing a small flag on his uniform.

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“He was deep in thought,” Harrelson said, “and it made me realize how important that flag was as a symbol of what we were doing. A lot of men died for it. To me, burning it is like urinating on their graves.”

I feel precisely the same way as Harrelson. Where we part is whether flag burners should be condemned as criminal or just stupid.

Especially annoying to me is that backers of the amendment want to make it a make-or-break issue in this fall’s elections: Side with us or be condemned as unpatriotic. It’s already put some opponents on the defensive, grasping at patriotic ties in their family histories to try to prove their patriotism.

I wish Tommy Lasorda had flexed his patriotic muscles for more important issues. For example, there was a story this week that Christopher Boyce will likely be released from prison in a few years. He’s the former TRW employee from Rancho Palos Verdes who sold secrets to the Russians in exchange for his playboy spending money.

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I’d much rather see Lasorda on Capitol Hill arguing to keep the Boyces of our country locked away for longer stretches.

And if he really wants to right a wrong not covered by the Constitution, I’ve got one in mind. It would ensure equal rights for both genders. When it was defeated in the past, it was known as the Equal Rights Amendment.

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by call-ing the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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