SEN. DANIEL Patrick Moynihan and Rep. Newt Gingrich appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday to debate their very different views on the flag-burning amendment. The senator waxed patriotic, challenging the view that most veterans favor the amendment, and framed the discussion in terms of a conflict between a symbol and the Bill of Rights. Rep. Gingrich seems to favor a "them vs. us" approach, implying that a small group of would-be intellectuals have foisted their views on the vast majority of Americans, who have entirely different values. Time after time during the program, he sought to minimize the strength and importance of those who view flag-burning as political speech by referring to them as "five lawyers."

He wasn't talking about a handful of attorneys discussing this constitutional issue over coffee or a small group hired to defend the flag-burners in court. He was referring to a majority of the Supreme Court: Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Scalia and Kennedy. Were it not for the last two, he probably would have dubbed them "pointy-headed, liberal lawyers." Rep. Gingrich's message was subtle and woven throughout the discussion. He lamented the fact that "five lawyers {overturned} 200 years of common practice." He urged the country "to rebuke five lawyers," to "say to five lawyers . . . we disagree with you" and to remember that "five lawyers voted" to create this problem. This country, he summarized, is not "automatically the dictatorship of lawyers," especially not a band of five overeducated elitists in Washington. At the end of half an hour, the viewing audience was undoubtedly supposed to think, "Well, we don't like lawyers in the first place, and if there are only five of them who disagree with all us good Americans, let's turn this thing around right now."

It's demeaning and self-deluding to refer to a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court as if they had no office and no constitutional authority. Rep. Gingrich doesn't pretend that the U.S. Senate is composed of "just 100 fellas and gals who, like all Americans, are entitled to their individual opinions." He doesn't brush off the president as "only a former businessman with his own ideas about how the country should be run." Whatever he thinks about the views of the five lawyers he criticizes, the congressman knows that as justices of the Supreme Court, they are the final authority on constitutional questions and their decisions are more than personal opinions.

Rep. Gingrich errs again when he attempts to divide opinion on the amendment along lines of education, income or socioeconomic status. You don't have to be a licensed expert on statutes and precedents to understand what free speech is all about. You don't have to identify with a protester's cause to defend his right to political expression. As the national debate on flag-burning proceeds, more and more Americans are coming to see the wisdom of five, very exceptional lawyers.