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Angry Congressmen Vow New Laws to Protect Flag

June 23, 1989|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Outraged members of Congress, liberal Democrats as well as conservative Republicans, pledged Thursday to enact legislation seeking to reverse the Supreme Court's decision upholding the right of dissenters to desecrate the U.S. flag.

Using colorful rhetoric usually reserved for enemies of the United States, members of both parties strongly condemned the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision Wednesday in favor of a protester who burned the flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas.

"I am mad as hell," declared Rep. Doug Applegate (D-Ohio) during House debate. "What in God's name is going on? This is an outrage. What will they allow next? Allow fornication in Times Square at high noon?"

In the Senate, a resolution expressing "profound disappointment" about the court ruling passed by a vote of 97 to 3, with liberal Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) as well as conservative Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) voting against it.

Humphrey condemned the resolution as political grandstanding by his colleagues--what he described as "an exercise in silliness and hypocrisy."

Both Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) announced that they would employ constitutional scholars to help them draft legislation making it illegal to destroy the flag.

Likewise, both Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) offered hastily drafted constitutional amendments to accomplish the same purpose.

Although any measure short of a constitutional amendment would be difficult to draft in light of the First Amendment obstacles outlined by the Supreme Court majority, Mitchell, a former federal judge, said that the court's ruling "may hold out the possibility of enacting constitutional legislation that would bar the misuse of the flag to incite riot or other disturbances."

But most members of Congress viewed it more as an emotional issue than a legal one.

Dole, whose right hand is withered because of a wound in World War II, said that Americans who do not like the country should simply leave it. "Go find something you like," he said. "If they don't like our flag, go find one you do like."

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a former Navy secretary, made a stirring floor speech recalling how the flag is always draped over the caskets of brave Americans who die in defense of the United States. And Rep. Ron Marlenee (R-Mont.) noted that the Iwo Jima Memorial depicts six Marines raising the flag during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

'Shot in the Back'

"These six brave soldiers were symbolically shot in the back by five men in black robes," Marlenee said. "The treasonous nature of the decision on the bench should be remembered every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance, every time we sing the national anthem, every time we pass a national cemetery. Six brave men raised the flag. Five Supreme Court justices tore it down."

Even President Bush, whose job it is to enforce Supreme Court decisions, said that he has strong reservations about the high court ruling.

"I understand the legal basis for that decision and I respect the Supreme Court and, as President of the United States, I will see that the law of the land is fully supported," Bush said. "But I have to give you my personal, emotional response. Flag-burning is wrong--dead wrong--and the flag of the United States is very, very special."

Dornan, a former fighter pilot, said that flag burning "is no more a form of protest than the KKK's cross burning." He added: "The act of flag burning is not meant to convey any political idea. It is an act that is solely meant to provoke and offend. . . . It is simply an act of cultural and patriotic destruction."

Mitchell said that the Supreme Court erred in failing to recognize the difference between free speech and action. "The protesters were not denied the right to speak," he said. "They chose to burn the flag as an addition to that right."

Dole agreed. He noted that the court frequently has recognized that the constitutional freedoms of American citizens are not unlimited.

"The right to bear arms, for example, does not give you the right to shoot someone," he said. "The right to free assembly does not mean that people can congregate uninvited in your house. And the right to free speech does not--or at least should not--mean that people can desecrate the American flag with impunity."

In its resolution, the Senate declared that it "intends to make an immediate study of the impact of yesterday's Supreme Court decision on federal and state laws prohibiting the desecration of the flag and to seek ways to restore sanctions against such reprehensible conduct."

Dornan's proposed constitutional amendment stated: "The Congress and the states shall have power to prohibit the act of desecration of the flag of the United States and to set criminal penalties for that act."

Thurmond's proposal said: "The Congress of the United States and the states have the power to prohibit the desecrating, mutilating, defacing, defiling or burning of the flag of the United States."

A constitutional amendment would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of each chamber of Congress and then by three-fourths of state legislatures.

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