I’m old enough to remember when the big controversy surrounding American flags was whether or not we should make it illegal for dim-bulb protesters to burn them in public. There was quite a bit of energy behind flag-burning bans for a while there. Instead, it has become illegal to display an American flag, at least in certain places and times.
For example, you’d better not fly the Stars and Stripes at Woodruff High School in South Carolina, especially on September 11. WSPA News reports:
Several people showed up with American flags to protest Woodruff High School’s decision to make students remove flags from their vehicles.
On September 11, four students showed up at the school with U.S. flags flying from their vehicles. The flags were confiscated after officials said it was against school district policy to “draw attention” to one’s vehicle. The flags were returned at the end of the day and the students were not punished.
Parents who were upset with the decision went to social media to voice their opinion. They also planned the protest, which took place Monday morning.
Around a dozen people were seen driving by the front of the school flying flags on their vehicles. A group of about 10 more people were seen standing on the sidewalk waving flags.
Parents told us the protest was to show their opposition to the “zero tolerance policy.”
This notion of the American flag as some sort of controversial or divisive symbol was taken to far more extreme lengths California, where you’d best not be wearing any American flags on Cinco de Mayo at Live Oak High School, lest you upset an angry mob of Latino students. That is not in any way a tendentious description of the case – it’s the express reason the school banned the wearing of American flag T-shirts. There were threats of racial unrest, and the school decided that giving in to the mob was more practical than standing up for the First Amendment or the American flag, so orders were given that American flag T-shirts must be turned inside out on the Mexican holiday.
A lawsuit over the flag T-shirt ban went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which just officially ratified the power of the “Heckler’s Veto” by refusing to reconsider the February ruling of a three-judge panel. That’s right, sports fans – using threats of violence to suppress speech and symbols you don’t like is A-OK in the United States of America, provided your threat of violence is serious and credible. If you don’t want American flags flown in an American school, you just need to convince the authorities you’re serious about rioting or beating up anybody you catch wearing one.
This opens some exciting new frontiers in the suppression of speech! It’s not that difficult to organize credible threats of violence, and now that we’ve established the First Amendment is not worth fighting for, free expression boils down to a question of will. Are you and your like-minded friends determined enough to make the Heckler’s Veto stick? Are you enough of a malcontent to declare the American flag is a “controversial” symbol, because it ostensibly represents whatever aspect of the United States you hate? To paraphrase the old jibe (often attributed, apocryphally, to Winston Churchill) about paying for sex, we’ve established that free speech is negotiable… all that remains is to haggle over the price.
It all sounds so very tribal, which of course is part of the reason to have a national flag, national identity, and ironclad commitment to free speech. You don’t want people getting the idea that they can assert superior powers by gathering into angry mobs. And you don’t want your national culture sending the message that patriotism is something to be embarrassed by. People, especially young people, will not have difficulty finding other groups that offer them the aggressive cultural reassurance of full-throated identification, while expressing their contempt for neurotic cultures that refuse to stand up for themselves.