Freedom of Speech, Oppression or Patriotism

A History Commonly Unknown

In Texas v. Johnson (491 U.S. 397, 1989), a Texas man was conviction for burning an American flag as an act of protest. This was overturned by the Supreme Court as Texas’ law being unconstitutional. The conflict is between the ideals of one’s patriotism, symbolism, free speech and dissent.

How relevant is it today?

"70/64" by Flickr user Cristian Bernal, used under a Creative Commons license
“70/64” by Flickr user Cristian Bernal, used under a Creative Commons license
  1. June 18, 2015 Charleston AME Church Shooting
    Dylann Roof killed in the name of the Confederate Flag and white supremacy
  2. June 19, 2015 “It’s Time to Burn the Confederate Flag” released by the Observer
    **It symbolized the unity and superiority of the white race and systematic oppression
  3. June 28, 2015 Walker v. Tex. Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. 576 U.S. (2015)
    **The Confederate Flag as a symbol on the license plate of patriotism, nationalism and the Civil War
  4. July 22, 2015 Patricia Cameron was arrested for organizing a Confederate Flag burning
  5. June 26, 2015 “Colorado Cops Arrest Mom for Confederate Flag Arson” released by The Daily Beast
    **The burning represented the years of historical oppression being burned away, an act of defiance

“There is only one flag that flies over America and that’s the America I am fighting for,” said Patricia Cameron.

The Confederate Flag is a symbol that conveys a message, therefore it is speech and expression. However, the message conveyed may not necessarily be the same message for everyone.

The legal decision in Texas v. Johnson made precedent because one cannot prove the flag is a symbol of nationhood for everyone.

Since 1861-2015 historically the context of the Confederate Flag has changed dramatically (A New Voice For the Changing South).

Under the First Amendment government cannot outlaw symbols of hate or bigotry due to its “offensive” nature, such as the swastika or the Confederate Battle Flag. Advocates of government could however, argue that the message of the Confederate Flag parallels to fighting words that arouse passion leading to a breach of peace. A regulation intended to help regulate such speech to keep peace would not violate the First Amendment.

 How far does it go?…

It still happens today.

The flag symbolizes something.

According to The Institute for Southern Studies, “Symbols are powerful…Public sentiment is shifting towards removing Confederate Flags from state capitol grounds, licenses plates and store shelves, with Americans increasingly recognizing it as a symbol of the South’s efforts to preserve white supremacist rule through violence and terrorism.”

If one can take a symbol with value to an audience and elevate it despite one’s right to disagree, then isn’t one’s speech being restricted?

In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vowed to pull it as choice of emblem on vehicle license plates — a step allowable since a recent Supreme Court ruling found that it was not protected speech.

“It’s display on state-issued license tags is, in my view, unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to too many of our people,” McAuliffe said in USA Today.

The significance of this statement is, “…hurtful to too many of OUR people.”

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, our is defined as belonging to or associated with the speaker and one or more other people previously mentioned or easily identified.

The power of “our” is the person or persons who speak it, as an aspect communicated as identifiable.

Just like the flag it is the power of the identifying factor and the ability to symbolize more than just one life. But the symbolism it bring to each individual – how can government determine that?

Even retail giants see the historical significance and uproar that the Confederate Flag is causing, so why isn’t this a larger issue of a breach of the peace?

Here are just a few of the retail responses:

  • “We believe it has become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism.” – eBay spokesperson Johnna Hoff
  • “We never want to offend anyone with the products we offer.” – Walmart statement
  • “Etsy’ an online retailer, its policies prohibit items or listings that promote, support or glorify hatred and these items fall squarely into that category.” – Etsy spokeswoman Sara Cohen

Do all see the reality of what the Confederate Flag symbolizes? Does it symbolize anything?
The First Amendment gives each of us freedom of expression, but not at the cost of hate speech, fighting words, treason and so much more. So, where do we place the symbolic power of the Confederate Flag? It was once burned in protest. It is now burned in protest. It has been waved to show patriotism, yet symbolically to some remains oppressive.
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