Senate Judiciary Committee, Hearing on Flag Amendment, SJ Res. 40

Sidney Street, a Negro bus driver, was sitting in his Brooklyn apartment on the afternoon of June 6, 1966, when he heard on the radio that civil rights leader James Meredith had been shot by a sniper in Mississippi. Street got his American flag from a drawer and took it down to the street. He placed a newspaper on the sidewalk, lit the flag with a match, and when he could hold it no longer he laid it on the newspaper, taking care that it did not touch the sidewalk. A crowd gathered and a policeman arrived. Street admitted to the policeman that he had burned the flag and said, "If they let that happen to Meredith, we don't need an American flag."1

Words alone could never have conveyed Sidney Street's message adequately. His actions were those of a person loyal to the ideals of freedom and democracy – the very ideas the flag represents. The fact that he owned a flag suggests as much. It would be a betrayal of this country's founding principles and basic premises if Sidney Street's act of political dissent and commentary were prohibited. Yet Congress is drawing perilously close to doing just that.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) condemns SJ Res. 40 as a blatant effort to silence political dissent. Its goals are to compel the appearance of universal respect for a national symbol, and to suppress criticism of government. To avoid offending some who respect the flag deeply, the flag amendment would withdraw from others – who take its message equally seriously – the ability to address dramatically issues of public concern, as Sidney Street did.

In 1765, John Adams warned Americans not to "suffer yourself to be wheedled out of your liberty by any pretense of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice."2 His warning is timely today. The flag amendment would extract a high price in the name of "decency," and democracy and freedom of expression would suffer in the process.

NCAC is an alliance of 48 national, not-for-profit organizations, including religious, educational, professional, artistic, labor and civil rights groups, united in their view that freedom of communication is the indispensable condition of a healthy democracy. In a pluralistic society it would be impossible for all people at all times to agree on the value of all ideas; and fatal to moral, artistic and intellectual growth if they did.

1.Thomas I. Emerson, The System of Freedom of Expression, pp.87-88 (1970).

2.Quoted in Louis E. Ingelhart, Press and Speech Freedoms in America, 1619-1995, p.28 (1997).