JOHN CONYERS JR. (D-MICH.): I would like to join in this discussion by asking the question that must be asked of all legislation that comes on the floor: What is the problem [that needs to be solved]?
Does anyone know how many cases of flag burning have occurred in this year or last year, or any of the years? Well, I am glad I asked that question, because I will provide my colleagues with the answer. The answer is that since 1990, we have had 72 reported cases of flag burning that I can bring to my colleagues' attention. I do not know of any in recent times. I think it is important that we consider in the midst of all of the issues that weigh upon the House of Representatives why this measure keeps coming back up time and time again. . . .
What about burning the Bible? Does that not raise members' temper a few degrees? How obscene it would be to burn a Bible publicly. Of course, someone might say, well, sure, we ought to include that, too, or we ought to look at that next. But these acts, as despicable as they are, are protected speech under the First Amendment.
So I would say to the members that the true test of any nation's commitment to freedom lies in its ability to protect unpopular expression, the kinds of things, the conduct that we do not like, exactly like flag burning and Bible burning.
JIM KOLBE (R-ARIZ.): Congress enacted the first federal flag protection act in the midst of the Vietnam War protests. However, I was not here to see these protests. I was in Vietnam, fighting for the very freedoms some are seeking to limit today. The flag is a special symbol for our country, but it is certainly no more than the Constitution itself. . . .
The First Amendment is no small part of the protections that . . . others and I fought to protect. Freedom of speech protects both those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree.
What we are debating today is a proposal to chip away at the First Amendment, and I cannot support that. I would like to see the intellectual prowess of this institution brought to bear upon the task of drafting legislation [that] would make it illegal to desecrate the flag of the United States and still meet the constitutional standard. However, taking the simplistic but dangerous task of amending the Constitution to accomplish this end is neither agreeable nor advisable. I ask my colleagues to consider the monumental implications of today's proposal. We are toying with a right we all hold dear: that of free speech.
Though this amendment may sound reasonable on the surface, I implore you to look beyond the superficial. Recall that in the 1975 case of Spence v. Washington, taping a peace symbol to the flag was at issue. Do you really believe imprisonment is the appropriate punishment for such an act? The fundamental issue is public protest--that is what gave rise to this issue. . . .
The Supreme Court articulated a standard in the 1989 case of Texas v. Johnson by which each of us should consider this issue. In that flag desecration case, the Court said: The First Amendment stops the government from prohibiting expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive, even when the flag is involved. Can anyone stand before us with intellectual honesty and deny that this is precisely what we aim to do?
. . . What should give all of us pause is that we stand in the Capitol of the government and debate outlawing speech with which we disagree. I cannot support such an Orwellian piece of legislation.
NANCY PELOSI (D-CALIF.): As an issue, the flag desecration amendment is, of course, entirely symbolic. Its sponsors believe that support is, symbolically speaking, tantamount to being a patriotic American.
But what is true patriotism in the context of the American experiment? At its heart, I believe, is an abiding tolerance--a tolerance so deep and so pervasive that it easily absorbs all insults. The American saga is, in essence, a tale of ever-expanding realms of acceptance and inclusion.
Tolerance of extraordinary diversity is the mystery that lies at the heart of our origins and our destiny, the magnificent quality that renders the American project unique in human experience--diversity in ethnic and religious origins; diversity in language and lifestyle; diversity in aptitude and ambition; and, yes, diversity in behavior, including the bizarre, the distasteful, and even the contemptuous.
We Americans are most patriotically American when we display our tolerance of virtually all behavior--short, of course, of crimes against people and property. Simply turning away from even such objectionable behavior as the burning of the flag is, then, a true test of our tolerance, a measure of our patriotism, a demonstration of our Americanism.
* On June 24, the House passed Joint Resolution 33 by a 305 to 124 vote. Supporting the constitutional amendment were 210 Republicans and 95 Democrats. Opposed were 10 Republicans, 113 Democrats and one Independent.