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Should It Be Legal to Burn the Flag?

Phrased differently, should we be allowed to say we hate our country?

Written by johnleemk on 1:04:49 pm Jul 29, 2007.

An interesting debate that breaks out every now and then in democratic countries about flag burning. Should it be legally permissible to burn a symbol of the nation?

Before getting to the core of the argument, one thing that strikes me is that the debate rarely centres around other national symbols. Democracies hardly ever see legislation put forward to criminalise burning or smashing the national coat of arms, or desecrating the national anthem, even though these are national symbols on par with the flag.

Of course, this may be because these sort of things are not quite as common as flag burning. But if we would like to be consistent, it surely stands to reason that we ought to be arguing about whether we should allow the desecration of any national symbol in general.

Whether or not we look at the debate in these terms, we can still approach it from the same angles. The important question is, should we have the right to say we hate the country?

After all, that is basically what someone who burns the flag is saying — that they hate the country, the nation represented by the flag. (An alternative interpretation argues that the act of flag burning actually indicates the flag burner's disappointment in the nation failing to live up to its ideals, but I find this a logically tortuous argument.)

Those who support a ban on flag burning are arguing that freedom of speech ought to be curtailed because it is wrong to say that you hate the country. But in that case, why not criminalise writing the words "I hate [name of my country]"? Why stop at just criminalising the burning of the flag?

One common response has been that flag burning is not speech but an act. Certain acts are forbidden, even though they may send a message — burning down a Muslim madrassah to indicate your disapproval of Muslim fundamentalism is certainly illegal in almost any country.

However, the reason such acts are normally forbidden is because they infringe on the rights of others. You cannot destroy the property of someone else. Even under existing laws in most democracies, it is illegal to take someone else's flag and burn it.

The question is, should it be legal for you to destroy your own flag, to send your own message? I cannot see why we should answer this question in the negative. There is no more reason to ban flag burning than there is to ban a statement of hatred towards one's country.