Issue 77, Spring 2000

National News—Two Victories, One Retreat

Great news from Congress: In a tremendous victory for free speech, the proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration was defeated, ending the perennial cliffhanger when Senators Robert Byrd, West Virgina, and Richard Bryan, Nevada, switched and voted against it. General Colin Powell’s views countered the jingoism that accompanied the debate. “I will not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants,” Powell wrote to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. “The flag will still be flying long after they have slunk away.” The amendment had handily passed in the House of Representatives. Had it garnered the required 67 Senate votes, ratification by the states seemed all but certain. The issue could influence Congressional races, especially in the Senate.

Great news from the Court: In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that public colleges and universities can collect mandatory student activity fees that finance campus groups some students oppose, if the program is viewpoint neutral, settling a controversy that has long troubled campuses across the nation. The case was brought by self-described conservative Christian students who claimed that the University of Wisconsin’s policy violated their free speech and free association rights. Similar challenges have been brought in state or federal courts for many years by students seeking to keep their money from supporting gay or abortion rights, environmental or other political or ideological causes.

Bad “nudes” from the Court: In a puzzling and troubling decision, the Supreme Court ruled, six to three, that an Erie, Pennsylvania ordinance to require nude dancers to wear pasties and G-strings does not violate the First Amendment because the requirement may reduce “secondary effects” like crime. The implausible rationale by Sandra Day O’Connor, provoked dissent from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter, who, in reversing an earlier viewpoint, concluded that “the city must show evidence of the seriousness of the threatened harm,” and “the efficacy of the chosen remedy.”