Survey shows little support in S. Florida for flag burning amendment

By Kevin Smith
Staff Writer
Posted July 4 2005

They love the flag, they respect the flag and they hate the idea of it ever being burned.

Even so, a lot of South Floridians don't think an amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- currently under consideration in Congress -- is necessary to protect the Stars and Stripes.

"They don't have anything better to do?" asked Frank Williams, 69, as he shot pool at the Sunrise Senior Center. "They should be trying to get the gas prices down."

The debate over flag burning, which has lingered for years, mixes questions of patriotism with allegations of partisan politics. It pits protection of one of the nation's greatest symbols against protection of one of its greatest rights.

A diverse selection of residents interviewed by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel universally agreed the flag should not be burned in protest -- with a strong majority also saying a constitutional amendment was unnecessary. That appears to reflect the mood of the nation; a poll conducted in May by the First Amendment Center showed 63 percent of those sampled did not want to see the amendment passed, up from 53 percent the year before.

"I don't think anyone should burn the flag," said Roger Ahyhurst, 57, of Fort Lauderdale, "but I don't think they should change the Constitution."

Some, however, said they thought the flag was deserving of all the protection Congress could give it, regardless of the scope of the problem. Katherine Bartnik, 19, said even a single case of flag burning would justify a response from members.

"I totally agree with it, because no one should burn the flag," said Bartnik, a resident of Bradenton studying at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "Any flag burning is enough to make [Congress] do that."

The U.S. House last month approved an amendment prohibiting the physical desecration of the flag, and the U.S. Senate could vote on the issue later this month.

If approved by the Senate, the amendment reading "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States" would then be sent to the states, where at least 38 state legislatures would need to approve it within seven years for the measure to become the 28th Amendment.

Supporting or opposing the amendment might be a simpler decision for citizens than for legislators. Some think the Republican-sponsored amendment is intended in part to force Democrats on Capitol Hill to choose between supporting the amendment or being labeled unpatriotic.

"Politicians have definitely put a stigma upon it," said Douglas Fairall, 22, of Boca Raton, who opposed the amendment. "They make it tough to go one way."

The need for the amendment was questioned by many. While two teens, both self-described anarchists, were charged with arson for burning five flags in Sarasota a week ago, none of those interviewed in South Florida could recall hearing about flags being burned in recent years.

"It's not a new issue," Williams said in Sunrise. "It's an old issue and I think [Congress] should be focused on something more important."

Politics aside, the question of whether the proposed amendment might undermine the First Amendment and its protection of free speech was on the minds of many.

"I think they're pushing that expression thing too far, personally," said Werner Rother of Boynton Beach, a member of the Delray Beach Elks Lodge. "The flag has always been there. The flag is a symbol of the United States. If they want to speak out for something, let them use something else."

Mohsen Alsallal, 62, of Davie, said burning a flag in protest was "a nasty thing to do" and contended effective protest doesn't require a lit match.

"The freedom of speech is, you can do anything with your mouth," he said. "What does it do to burn a flag? It doesn't change anything."

The other side of the argument holds that freedom of expression protects all expression, even the most unpopular acts, said Keren Prize Bolter, 24, of Coral Springs.

"I think it's fine to burn a flag if people want to do it," she said. "Stopping someone from doing that, how does that make this a freer country?"