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Lawmakers Wants to Legalize Attacking Flagburners

April 13, 1999
By: David Grebe
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 51

JEFFERSON CITY - Some Missouri lawmakers say they aren't going to let the Supreme Court stand in the way of putting a halt to flag desecration.

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Sam Gaskill, R-Washburn, would prevent people who attack flag-defilers from being charged with a crime. The bill only makes an exception for the use of deadly force.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag desecration constitutes political speech - and is protected by the First Amendment.

"All this bill does is provide freedom for those who think the flag is more than a piece of cloth," Gaskill said. "It's too much to expect that a veteran will stand by idly (while the flag is being defiled)," he added.

"The flag is the symbol of what freedom is supposed to be," said Jim Gill, director of youth activities for the Missouri Veterans of Foreign Wars. Gill said that men fought and died for the U.S. flag - and that their sacrifice should be respected.

Every lawmaker on the House-Federal Committee who spoke at a hearing on the bill Monday night said they disliked flag defilers - but many had reservations about the bill.

"Some of the people who burned the flag in the '60's were veterans themselves," said Rep. Denny Meridith, an Independent from Caruthersville.

"Is there any reason this bill allows force - all the way up to deadly force?" asked Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia. Graham said that flag-burning is "despicable," but wondered if it was proper to allow individuals to use force to stop a legal act.

"One thing that bothers me is the violence that might ensue, said Rep. Bill Tudor, R-Grandview. Tudor said he thought veterans could get hurt themselves trying to stop a flag-burning.

Gaskill wore a tie resembling the US flag - which drew the attention of Meridith. "I looked at the book on flag etiquette and I could be offended by the tie you have on," he said.

Gaskill replied that the flag is clearly defined by the U.S. Code - and that definition doesn't cover his tie.

But Marsha Richeson, lobbyist for the ACLU, said that how an actual flag is used could cause more problems. She speculated about what would happen if an abortion rights opponent turned a flag upside down - a symbol of distress - to protest legalized abortion.

"Anyone can take offense, depending on one's viewpoint about how the flag is used," Richeson said.

Richeson said she doubted the need for a such a bill - flag-burnings aren't all that common in Missouri. "The '60's are over," she noted.

The House-Federal Committee appeared reluctant to take action on the bill.

Instead, they invited Gaskill to sponsor a resolution encouraging Congress to revisit the flag-desecration issue.