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Long May It Wave

The Flag Protection Amendment

June 2005



Nearly half of the 1,521 Medals of Honor awarded during the Civil War were presented to soldiers who carried their regimental flag into battle, or courageously fought their way into enemy lines to capture the flag of the enemy. This simple fact often leaves those with an interest in the Medal of Honor with the impression that the award was frequently awarded during the Civil War without the same merit of subsequent wars. The fact of the matter is, to soldiers of both sides, whether the Stars and Stripes of the Union or the flag of the Confederacy, the flag represented something--an ideal worth fighting for, even worth dying for.

Among the examples of extreme measure to which a soldier would go to protect the flag was the case of William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts. Sergeant Carney's first battle came at Fort Wagner, SC on July 18, 1863. 

As the Union forces attacked across an open beach, Sergeant John Wall led the way as color bearer for the Black regiment that was spearheading the assault. It was the first test of the all-Black young soldiers who had joined the Union forces following the Emancipation Proclamation seven months earlier, the same battle depicted in the popular movie "Glory."

When a bullet struck down Sergeant Wall, Sergeant Carney rushed in to take up the flag, and advanced on the fort. Another enemy round reached out, striking Sergeant Carney in the leg, but despite the pain he continued on, leading the way with the flag. In the hail of fire that dropped his comrades across the sand, somehow Sergeant Carney reached the enemy wall, and then found himself alone. When taken under fire by a Confederate patrol, Carney knew he had to retreat quickly--and with only one good leg. His first thought however, was for the flag he carried. He wrapped the flag around the staff to protect it, and then sprinted across the sand while bullets flew from all directions.

Stumbling down an incline and across a waist-deep ditch, Sergeant Carney tried to race back to his own lines, all the while doing his best to protect his flag. A bullet struck him in the chest, another in the right arm, but the brave young former slave refused to drop the flag, or even to let another retreating, uninjured soldier from another unit take the flag from him. "No one but a member of the 54th Massachusetts shall carry our flag," he retorted when a retreating soldier of the 100th New York saw how badly wounded Carney was and offered to carry the flag off the battlefield for him. In the twilight of the fading sun, as Rebel shot and shell reached out to drop Sergeant Carney and his flag, the badly wounded but determined soldier continued on. In the distance those of his comrades who had fallen back to safety saw their friend struggling to reach them and began shouting encouragement over the din of enemy fire. Their shouts erupted into cheers when at last Sergeant Carney reached the lines. Before collapsing from his multiple wounds, Sergeant Carney passed the flag to one of his comrades with the remark, "Boys, I only did my duty. Our flag never touched the ground."

The citation for Sergeant Carney's Medal of Honor, the first to be earned by a Black American, says simply: "When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded." Its one of those typical Civil War examples of a citation that on first read causes some people to think it was a lot easier in that war to earn the Medal of Honor. When one knows the story behind the few sentences of the early MOH award citations, there can be no denying that Sergeant Carney's valor is quite on par with those of more recent awards.

To me, the striking lesson from Sergeant Carney is not so much the inspirational nature of his great valor, as it is the deep love of a bolt of cloth--cloth that stands apart from typical material in that it is arranged in stripes of red and white with a field of blue stars. It is the FLAG of our Nation, the symbol of all we hold dear. William Carney was willing to die for that flag.

Like Sergeant Carney, and like millions of fellow veterans, I dearly love the flag. When I see the Stars and Stripes waving in the wind I'm reminded of our great American heritage and the  sacrifices made to preserve our freedom. That flag symbolizes George Washington and his rag-tag citizen soldiers with little more than a dream of freedom, struggling to endure the harsh winter at Valley Forge. In that flag I see the proud valor of outnumbered and surrounded Marines at the Chosin Reservoir, marshalling unbelievable determination to not only survive, but insure the survival of their comrades. I can only imagine the great thrill that was felt by embattled Marines at Iwo Jima as the Stars and Stripes was unfurled atop Mount Surabachi, or the great relief and inspiration experienced by Francis Scott Key when dawn broke on the morning of September 12, 1814 to show the Star Spangled Banner still proudly waving despite the heavy enemy bombardment of the night.

For me, cloth is cloth--I have no lucky shirt, no suit that has preference over another. Cloth is simply cotton, or nylon, or polyester--until that cloth is sewn together in the distinctive pattern that depicts the proud symbol of our nation. At that point, cloth becomes sacred.

That flag represents not only the sacrifice that has kept our Nation free, but the very nature of that freedom, the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Among these rights is the First Amendment Right, the right to free speech. For some Americans, that means the right to denigrate that flag as some form of protest, to the point of burning the flag, spreading excrement on it, and other unimaginable acts. I am horrified that no matter how one feels about free speech, that any American could condone such actions. We are talking about the very flag that so many have died for, that Sergeant Carney loved so dearly he refused under the most trying combat conditions to allow to touch the ground.

For the last decade there have been repeated efforts in Congress to protect the flag from such abuse. Six times the U.S. House of Representatives have approved Resolutions for a Constitutional Amendment to protect the flag. The wording of those various resolutions have been almost always consistently the same, and quite simple: 

"The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States".

The call for a flag protection Amendment has often been seen as a partisan one, Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it as an infringement on the right of free speech. In the House of Representatives however, the measure has received bi-partisan support. The amendment passed the House by a vote of 310 - 114 in 1997, 305 - 124 in 1999, and by a vote of 298 - 125 in 2001. In the most recent attempt, with bi-partisan sponsorship in the House, H.J. Res. 10, was introduced by Reps. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.). On June 22 of this year, the House once again voted to send to the Senate legislation to advance a Constitutional Amendment to protect the flag. The vote was 286 - 130, and included 77 Democrats in affirmation of the action.

Supporters of a Flag Protection Amendment have historically been disappointed by the failure of the Senate to follow the affirmative vote of the house. This year, many believe, might be the best opportunity yet to see the measure advance beyond the halls of Congress. Now before the Senate as S.J. Res. 12, fifty-five Senators have signed on as co-sponsors. Only twelve Senators of the remaining 45 would need to vote affirmatively for this measure to advance. (Constitutional Amendments require a 2/3 vote in each House.) The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the Amendment, counts ten Senators who not listed as co-sponsors, as supporting the Flag Protection Amendment. With 67 "Yea" votes needed in the Senate, we are within two votes of at last seeing an Amendment to protect our flag advance to the individual states.

I must say that I am especially proud of my own Senators for their support, and especially so of Senator Ken Salazar, a Democrat. While the ACLU was biting their fingernails as they tried to tally up the 34 votes needed to kill the measure yet again, Senator Salazar not only spoke out in support but signed on as a co-sponsor. "The flag is special and deserves our reverence and protection," he stated.

There are many reasons why I support Congressional action for a Flag Protection Amendment. For the sake of brevity, I'll list only a few:

  1. Flag desecration is NOT FREE SPEECH. Speech is a verbal action, flag desecration is a physical action. One can legally say "I hate you and want to kill you." It is not legal to take that action you profess. American's have the right to speak out in opposition to our government, against our society, to criticize others, or even to speak against the flag. But when one takes the steps to physically deface the flag, they have gone beyond speech. For this reason, I do not believe protecting the flag from desecration is even a First Amendment issue.

  2. Even free speech has its limits. Despite the guarantees of free speech offered under the First Amendment, some speech is deemed beyond propriety. Racial slurs, because of their inappropriate nature, cross the boundaries from free speech to HATE speech. You can criticize the President and be within the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment--unless you make a threat. Threatening speech will certainly bring you under the immediate control of law enforcement. When frustrated by the guy who cuts you off on the freeway, certain gestures can get you fined for road rage in many states. And there are some words you can say anywhere, any day, and any time, with impunity--unless you are in an airport. Don't even jokingly yell "Hi Jack" to a friend if you are in an airport. Indeed, not all speech is FREE SPEECH.

  3. Historically, protections have been legislated for some of our most treasured symbols or for the sensibility of our society. Despite the freedoms guaranteed every American under the Constitution, you do not have the right to:

  • Print money.

  • Drive in excess of certain speeds, or without seat-belt restraint.

  • Burn a cross.

  • Shoot and serve a bald eagle for dinner.

  • Carry your favorite pocket knife on an airplane.

  • For that matter, in my hometown of Pueblo, you can't even smoke a cigarette while enjoying a beer in your favorite tavern. Such an action is locally deemed so inappropriate and offensive to certain segments of our community, that such an act breaches the rights of others.

  1. Whether or not to Amend the Constitution to protect the flag is an issue that should now be decided by the various states. Such an amendment has repeatedly been approved in the House, and similarly been repeatedly  rejected in the Senate. Under our Constitutional process for amending the document that both defines our nation and guides our society, ultimately the decision is made by the various states. The two or three Senators who might well hold the future of this Amendment in their power should recognize the great support in both houses and, rather than denying a Flag Protection Amendment any possible chance of ratification, at least give the states a chance to vote either to ratify, or reject it. Despite any opposition to the measure they may feel, the Amendment would still have a tough battle ahead of it. In order to be ratified, three-fourths of the states (38 of the 50) must ratify the Amendment. How daunting is that task? Since 1789 more than 10,000 constitutional amendments have been proposed in Congress. Only 33 of these have received the two-thirds affirmative votes of both houses of Congress, and only 27 of these (which includes the first Ten Amendments that are our Bill of Rights) have ultimately been ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Against such long odds, I believe that at the very least, the time has come for the U.S. Senate to at least give the people of our Nation's fifty states the opportunity to decide if prohibiting such actions as flag-burning are protected rights under the First Amendment. It would be sad to see 34 Senators (actually only 2 or 3 can make the difference) kill a measure with a better than two-thirds majority of support in the House, stand between the people of our country and their opportunity to decide if our flag is worth protecting from abuse.

Doug Sterner

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If this old vet sees someone burning a flag, they won't need an amendment to protect it--get the point!
James Allenson
Panama City, FL USA -

God bless the flag. Earlier this year, I was at a Memorial Day ceremony at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, IL. For the start of the ceremony, the flag was at half mast. Then in the middle, with music in the background, it was raised to full staff and I watched it proudly go up toward the heavens. Then during the playing of Taps, I had my hand over my heart and my eyes fixed squarely on the flag. Despite the fact that I have disagreements over what the actions in the Middle East are about, I cannot find any fault with the people who serve under that flag. They fight for it, they die for it and their caskets are draped with it. Something must be done to protect this symbol of our land. Deliberately burning or destroying it while claiming free speech may still be legal for now but that doesn't mean you won't be arrested for at least disorderly conduct. Such people should be put to shame for the harm they are doing.
Tim Weiler <>
Elgin, IL USA -
What burns me more than anything is the use of the flag on clothes, napkins, lawn chairs, and anything anyone can sell to make a buck. When I was a kid there was a big fuss made about hippies wearing the flag on their clothes in a disrespectful way. To me there's nothing worse than seeing a tattered American flag hanging off someone's car radio antenna or theri front porch, up day and night, in the rain, snow, and whatnot. Even people who think they're professing their patriotism desecrate the flag by doing these things, and I think we need to educate people that it's improper. Thanks!
Chris <>
Pawling, NY USA -
I would like to know when that Big Hero, John Kerry, is going to "release" the medical records that prove that he is authorized to wear 3 Purple Hearts. But I'm not holding my breath!!!!!!
Jim Nikirk <>
Oakland, OR USA -
Skip Bisbee <>
Pataskala, Ohio USA -
First off, I am not a veteran. All Americans should respect the FLAG for what it stands for. Try going to one of those ass backwards middle eastern countries and desecrate something they hold dear and see what happens to you. RESPECT THE FLAG AND WHAT IT STANDS FOR WEATHER OR NOT YOU AGREE WITH THE GOVERNMENT. One last statement F*** HANOI JANE!!!!!!
Bill Wendt <>
Byfield, Ma USA -    

I think of our flag is a symbol and not an idol. That said I've no problem with someone having a flag on their t-shirt....and some words that are not at odds with the intent of honoring the flag...such as 'God Bless America'...written under the flag.

But a flag printed on the rear of a pair of boxers.....that's not a place or in the 'spirit' of honor in today’s culture...and I've a personal problem with that. That said, one can have a flag symbol on their casket that is buried in the ground to honor a patriot.....but I'm not for burying the flag by stomping it into the ground.

So....the 'spirit' in which a flag (or likeness of one) is handled/ the only issue for me...and I suspect what was meant by our founding fathers. Certainly there will be those who think that a flag is only meant to fly high on a pole....but I differ from that view.

If in death a flag is placed within a casket with a patriot, I'm ok with that. Because the 'spirit' of the symbol is held in honor. Burn a flag to dispose of it (like the VFW does)...ok...

Burn a flag because your pissed that legislation to allow cows human rights has failed......not ok (with me).....the flag is not (in my mind) a political tool to be wielded as it suits a 'whim' is a symbol of my country and its history and honor...that doesn't change.

Mike Email: mikepoteet(at)comcast-dot-net   Portland, OR
July 27, 2006

Personally, I think you guys over there should be very cautious about "making waves" about the U.S. Flag issue. Believe me, I have nothing but respect for U.S. soldiers who fight under that flag. BUT: it's "just" a symbol. Don't get me wrong here: I appreciate that it is a very important symbol to many Americans- it's kinda important to me too: Europe was liberated by men under that flag! BUT: don't do religious fanatics and other ignorant people a favor by blowing your national symbol out of proportions. What good would federal legislation against flag desecration do, if outside the U.S. people can burn flags at will? Kinda absurd...If those fanatics know that this very flag is "sacred" and protected by law, they will find it even more satisfying to burn it before the cameras. Are you guys sure you want to humor them? In other words: It is NOT just a symbol, but we should all act as if it is just that... "Oh, so you guys are burning the U.S. Flag? Is that the best you can do? Kinda childish, but by all means, be my guest..." Something like that...
Koen Van Parijs  EMAIL: koekie(at)   Zelzate, Belgium



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