Virtual Flag Burning

Let's see. Click-click. Access the Internet. Click-clickity-click. Enter address: http: // warren/flag.html. The World Wide Web site bursts open: "Get out your zippos, it's The Flag-Burning Page." Next, browsers are invited to "Burn a Virtual Flag." Sure enough, click those words, and Old Glory appears only to be consumed in full-color flames. In fact, the design is so highly regarded, it won Point Communications' "Top 5 Percent of all Web Sites" award. But beyond a desire to pull the chain of patriotic Americans or as an exercise in computer design, the site has a serious intent. The page seeks to alert people of an impending constitutional ban on flag "desecration." Warren Apel's Web site calls attention to the time and taxpayer dollars involved. "Very few, if any flags are burned on a regular basis," says Ed Hasbrouck, an organizer and lobbyist for the Emergency Committee to Stop the Flag Amendment in '88-'90. But, Hasbrouck says, if the amendment passes thousands of flags will go up in smoke. The proposed amendment passed the House in June. Recently the Senate Judiciary Committee sent it to the full body for debate. Its sponsors reportedly are about three votes short of the two-thirds vote needed. If the Senate approves the bill, it then must be ratified by three fourths of the state legislatures. Since many of those bodies have gone on record supporting it, San Franciscan Hasbrouck says the amendment will become law "unless there is loud, grass-roots opposition to it." Hasbrouck helped defeat the first attempted ban following a 1989 Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas ban. In that case, even the court's most conservative members reasoned that although the action was probably odious to most Americans, it was protected by the First Amendment.Hasbrouck says the intent of limiting flag burning as symbolic speech is clear. When he and members of his committee went to Washington during the 1990 hearings, they were barred from testifying. When they stood in the room and gagged themselves with flags, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond inquired, "Those people back there, with the flags over their mouths...if we passed this amendment, could we have them arrested?" The 1990 attempt at passage in the House failed by 34 votes. Supporters of the amendment define "desecration" vaguely. Would burning a virtual flag become illegal? "People prosecuted will be those who use the flag to say things the government doesn't want said." He urges calls and letters to senators. "As a later amendment, it will supersede the First Amendment wherever they conflict," says Hasbrouck. "What's next?" By the way, what's the only officially sanctioned form for disposal of worn or soiled U.S. flags? You guessed it: burning.

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