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Assault Against Flag Burners Could Be Legalized

December 06, 2001
By: Nicholas Rummell
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A bill to legalize assault on flag burners could be signed into law, say state legislators.

The bill, pre-filed for the upcoming Missouri legislative session, would allow a person to "physically intervene" to prevent the burning or defiling of an American flag.

According to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Sam Gaskill, this could include assault.

"I don't think you can expect an old veteran...to stand idly by while some punk wants to burn a flag on the streets just to make some kind of dramatic statement," he said.

Gaskill stated that the events since Sept. 11 have increased patriotism, and might therefore ease the bill through committees and into law.

But Matt LeMieux, executive director of Missouri's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, stated that such a bill condones criminal action against someone exercising First Amendment rights.

"People still have constitutional protection to exercise free speech," said LeMieux. "Sept. 11 didn't change that."

Whether the bill actually makes it out of the House's Public Safety committee remains to be seen.

Rep. Harold Selby saw an earlier version of Gaskill's bill in the Public Safety committee last session, but stated the bill's vagueness caused other lawmakers to oppose it.

"Using the flag in a disrespectful way is wrong -- and it is wrong -- but where do we stop?" asked Selby, stating that the bill could fall down the slippery slope of physically restraining any form of protest.

Selby said that the bill, which clarifies that a person "may not use deadly force upon another person," lacks a referee by giving citizens carte blanche to use almost any means to prevent flag desecration.

But Gaskill stated the intent of the bill is to allow citizens to take away defiled flags from others without being charged with theft, not endorse physical assault.

"My bill would not give anybody the authority to go out and attack somebody else just because they're doing something to the flag," Gaskill said.

Selby agrees the bill stands a chance of being passed.

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, proposed a Constitutional amendment last March prohibiting physical desecration of the flag, a reoccurring issue in Congress.

Some other bills that will be up for debate next session is a bill on school observation of Veteran's Day and another bill calling for a mandatory Pledge of Allegiance in classrooms.