Civil Rights

Flag Burning and Desecrating

Robert Rosebrock and other US army veterans demonstrated outside the Department of Veterans Affairs for 90 consecutive Sundays. They protested the proposed conversion of a chunk of veteran land in California to a public park and other commercial uses.

In the beginning, they displayed the American flag right-side up. But later, they began flying the flag upside down, a symbol of protest and distress.

Desecrating the Flag?

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA Department) brought charges against Rosebrock, saying he and other former military men desecrated the US flag by hanging it upside down. After the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) intervened, the VA Department dismissed the claim. Nonetheless, this raises some important questions.

The Controversy

The 388-acre site in Brentwood, California was created for veteran use. However, it has been used for several nonrelated commercial events. A film studio held a fundraising carnival on the land. Most recently, a plan for a public park has been introduced.

The veterans are seeking to get this land back for their use and have been demonstrating outside the grounds. Believing their property was being threatened, the veterans began displaying the flag upside down after the fundraiser.

The VA Department condemned the protesting veterans using this "distress symbol" as an inappropriate display on VA Department's property. They promptly issued a warrant for Rosebrock's arrest and he was cited for violating VA Department regulations.

While eventually dropping the charges, the controversy continues. When the veterans resumed their weekly protest, VA Department police again ordered them to remove their upside-down flags from the federally owned fence.

What Does It Mean to Desecrate the Flag?

The US flag is sometimes burnt as a symbol of protest, often against the policies of the American government. The flag can also be used in other symbolic ways, such as wearing it in an offensive manner or, as in this case, displaying it upside-down.

The US Supreme Court decided theĀ First Amendment to theĀ Constitution says it's unconstitutional for a government (whether federal, state or town) to prohibit the desecration of a flag, because it's seen as "symbolic speech."

While burning a flag is actually an action, a non-verbal act makes a similar statement. And it is protected as symbolic speech under the First Amendment.

Upside-Down Flag

Flying an American flag upside down isn't necessarily meant as political protest. The practice began as a military distress signal.

Displaying a flag in this manner is a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. However, it's been used to make a statement about distress in civic, political and other areas.

Famous Historical Events of Flag Desecration

During the US involvement in the Vietnam War, American flags were burned during anti-war protest demonstrations.

In 1983, publisher of Hustler magazine Larry Flynt was jailed for 6 months for wearing an American flag as a diaper in court. Today, defacing or desecrating a flag is an act of protected speech under the First Amendment.

Flag Burning Amendments

While flag burning or desecrating is protected free speech, meaning you can't be jailed for such the act, there have been many attempts made to change this law.

Several flag burning amendments to the Constitution have been proposed. On June 22, 2005, one was passed by the House with two-thirds majority. However, the following year, the Senate rejected this attempt. The Senate was only one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to be voted on by the states.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I want to protest the war in Iraq. Can I use the American flag in my protest?
  • If I burn an American flag on my lawn, can the police arrest me?

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