PRESIDENT Bush declared the other day that the act of burning the American flag "endangers the fabric of our country." If that were true (and it's not), it would be hard to explain how the United States has survived for 199 years with the First Amendment in full effect, guaranteeing this allegedly dangerous and subversive freedom of expression.
Some of the congressional Democrats, inclined to oppose the president, are reportedly wondering how to explain themselves to their constituents. There is a simple answer: point to actual American experience. American history has not been a gentle process. This country has been through a terrible civil war, foreign wars, depressions and riots, times of great fear and confusion, without compromising its basic principles or finding it necessary to shorten the Bill of Rights.
Would you say that the fabric of society is in greater danger today than at the height of the Vietnam War and the demonstrations against it? In the violence of that moment, there was much abusive behavior, and the flag was desecrated many times. But the crisis has passed, and the fabric of the society has never been stronger than today. One leading reason for it is the preservation of constitutional freedom.
Mr. Bush has now made himself the first American president in some years to stand firmly and explicitly in favor of limiting the right to free political expression -- for burning a flag or wearing it on the seat of your pants constitutes expression just as picketing or other symbolic actions do. The president argues that the law is already full of restrictions on expression, and he would only add another. But those present restrictions are the sanctions against libel, and revealing military secrets, and crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater and that sort of thing. They all involve speech that threatens real and specific harm to other people. To burn a flag is offensive, but it is a pure act of political expression. To enact a constitutional amendment restricting political expression would be something entirely new for this country, which has always taken a deep pride in a legal tradition that protects the right of all Americans, even small and unpopular minorities, to express their opinions.
The president's performance does not, in the view of the White House, constitute demagoguery. As one White House official generously explained to a reporter, Mr. Bush "is not going to demagogue on this. That's what he's got Dole for." This rather demeaning reference is to Sen. Robert J. Dole, the minority leader. But Mr. Bush seems to be making rapid progress in the demagoguery department without senatorial assistance.