Constitutions Are Not for Trivializing

Article excerpt

Arguing for a constitutional amendment against desecrating the American flag, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the theory was simple: "As tombstones are not for toppling, nor churches not for vandalizing, flags are not for burning." By his own logic, amendments against church vandalism and tombstone toppling should be next up for approval by the House. Of course, they won't be; the flag-burning amendment shouldn't be either. To borrow Mr. Hyde's formula, constitutions aren't for needlessly amending.

Needless is the key word. Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression protects the burning of a flag, fires of indignation have periodically flared up in Congress. At the same time, though, flag burnings themselves have hardly been a hot issue. Such protests are despicable, childish and abhorrent to everyone who cherishes the freedoms the flag represents. They also are so rare that they are best countered not as a crime with constitutional recognition but as a toddler's tantrum that, treated with disdain, soon blusters itself out.

President Bill Clinton recognizes the wisdom of that approach. Walter Dellinger, an assistant attorney general for the administration, told a Senate subcommittee earlier this week that Mr. …