Originally created 05/28/98

Locals protect Old Glory



Nancy Wolfe can't pass an American flag without seeing into the past, and the future, and her community.

"It stands for you and me," said Mrs. Wolfe of North Augusta, past state president of the American Legion auxiliary. "It's our past and what we've achieved and our future and what we will achieve."

And though she understands some people may not get that, it doesn't give them the right to destroy what she so cherishes, she said.

For millions like her, the U.S. Senate holds the key to protecting the symbol of their country. A constitutional amendment that would make illegal "physical desecration" of the flag has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives and now awaits a vote by the Senate. A similar amendment passed the House in 1995 only to fall three votes short of the required two-thirds in the Senate. Supporters like Mrs. Wolfe and her husband, Nat, hope this year will be different.

But even a co-sponsor of the amendment in the Senate, Max Cleland, D-Ga., couldn't promise it would pass.

"Two-thirds of the Senate is pretty difficult to get," Mr. Cleland said. "I don't know whether there's enough votes."

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Some senators still are objecting on free speech grounds, an argument Mr. Cleland rejects.

"We're not saying you can't speak out against the flag, or the president or me or anything you want," Mr. Cleland said. "But when you physically desecrate the flag, I think you're really desecrating America and our hopes and aspirations. It's a unifying symbol."

Groups such as the American Legion will play a key role in creating grass-roots support for the amendment, Mr. Cleland said. Part of that is the "Show Your Colors, America" campaign, urging people to fly their flags until the vote, said Mr. Wolfe, past national vice commander for the American Legion. An American Legion ladies auxiliary in North Augusta wrote 27 letters to reluctant senators urging their support, said Mrs. Wolfe.

"It's not just red, white and blue cloth to me," Mrs. Wolfe said.

And though there are arguments that the amendment could unwittingly make criminals of those with flag T-shirts or star-spangled hats, Mrs. Wolfe doesn't buy it.

"If you wear a flag on your T-shirt, that's not the flag we're trying to protect," she said. "We're trying to protect the flag you salute."

If the amendment does pass the Senate, and Mr. Cleland said he did not know when it would be scheduled for a vote, then it would need to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. He predicted smooth sailing for the amendment in the Georgia legislature, which has passed a resolution urging Congress to pass the amendment, as most states have.

Then it would up to Congress to actually write a law making it illegal, and set the penalty. And that's where Congress could find itself back in a difficult situation with the First Amendment, said Kent Middleton, journalism professor at the University of Georgia and a First Amendment scholar. In defining what is "desecration" and what are illegal ways of destroying the flag, Congress could stray back into prohibiting political speech, Dr. Middleton said.

"Desecration is a slippery word," Dr. Middleton said, "when you get back into political motives and get back into certain kinds of desecration."

And even though the amendment "would give Congress a stronger hand" in writing the law, once it is defined it could still be subject to a court challenge, he said.

An example, Dr. Middleton said, is "if Congress comes back and says it's illegal to destroy the flag if you're an anti-war protester, but it's not illegal to destroy the flag if you're a World War II veteran." And even though the kinds of acts it prohibited may seem to be devoid of any decent argument, freedom of speech means protecting "that speech we find most offensive."

Those kinds of arguments can come later as far as amendment supporters are concerned. What is more important is to get it done than to quibble about what fine or jail time Congress will impose, Mr. Wolfe said. And this year, there just may be enough support to do it, he said.

"I hope this will be the last year we'll have a problem with getting it passed," he said.