After the election of Donald Trump, he suggested, in a Nov. 29 Tweet, that burning the American flag should be punishable by law, suggesting the loss of citizenship or a year in jail. The suggestion itself is a spit in the face of the Constitution and the Freedom of Expression. What is more concerning is the support that the suggestion garnered from many Americans. Though the Supreme Court ruled that the act of burning an American flag is protected under the First Amendment, Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), a new administration with a newly appointed Supreme Court justice could change that. But why would they want to? Trump’s campaign slogan was to Make America Great Again.How would punishing the expression of burning a flag be great? Individualism and the civil liberties protected by the Constitution are one of the things that makes this a great nation. Only a repressive government, one that violates the rights of citizens would do such a thing. Jailing people for burning a flag is an action of countries such as China, Russia, Israel and Saudi Arabia; with countries such as North Korea and Venezuela taking harsher stances and putting dissenters to death. For America to take actions against flag burners makes for a repressive regime in kind, this should be avoided.
As a student activist, I intended to show this hypocrisy of pledging to make America great while simultaneously suggesting criminalizing free expression. I intended to express this, alongside the message that only repressive regimes punish flag burning, by burning some flags of these repressive regimes on my college campus, Troy University. I had the flags of China, Russia, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union. Before I could even get my table set up to pass out pocket Constitutions and fliers for our meeting, I was met by a professor asking me not to carry out the event. Over the next twenty minutes one professor grew to five professors and and a bypassing student all urging me not to do the event. At the beginning of the conversation, I was determined to do the event, adversity or not, because I had good intentions, and I felt it was the principled approach, sticking to my plan. But after discussing the event, one main issue kept coming up, Troy prides itself on being an international school, with students from all over the world, and many students come over here from China, and instead of seeing someone making a political statement, it would have instead appeared to be one student burning the flag of many other students’ people. The flag is a symbol of more than just a country and government, but the individuals of a nation as well. The professor who first spoke to me even said that he fully supported my right to burn the flags, and I had just that, the right to do something, but in this case it was much better invoke the right not to burn the flag, because my actions would have likely been misinterpreted, and the intentions of my actions would have mattered nil. I would have likely been painted as a xenophobe or racist.
The truth of the matter is this can, and does happen so many times in political activism, it is best to use an action or gimmick that will make a statement to get a message across. Often times this activism is well received by the right audiences, but many other times our messages can come out diluted and distorted far from our intentions. Due to this we must find better ways to message our ideas and think more critically of our activism, this holds true to those across the political spectrum. A strong image for people to see and to relate to is a great tool for activism, but for every potential person you turn away with this image is detrimental to your message. Though we are lucky enough to have the right to express ourselves without fear of punishment, we should exercise the right to tactfully express ourselves as well, especially when trying to spread winning ideas.