Skip to content

Trump Wants Stiff Penalties for Burning American Flag

President-elect starts fight with history against him

Protesters burn an American flag on Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower in New York City on Nov. 9 after Donald Trump’s election as president. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)
Protesters burn an American flag on Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower in New York City on Nov. 9 after Donald Trump’s election as president. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)

President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday suggested on social media that burning the American flag should be a criminal offense, reigniting a First Amendment fight that’s already played out in Congress and before the Supreme Court.

In a tweet sent at 6:55 a.m., the incoming 45th chief executive suggested that a constitutional amendment or law punishing those who burn Old Glory could be wedged into an agenda already crowded with an envisioned  infrastructure plan, tax code changes, an immigration overhaul and the repeal of the 2010 health care law.

Such a move could pit Trump against a congressional Republican leader he needs to pass other agenda items.

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

It was not immediately clear what prompted Trump’s tweet. But protesters following his election burned American flags in scenes replayed on cable news and captured in print and online media accounts.

Trump’s transition office did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether he plans to send Congress legislation that would amend the U.S. Constitution or install another law that would land flag-burners in jail or without citizenship.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior aide to President Barack Obama, responded to Trump on Twitter, saying, “A president who punishes free expression, staffed by a white supremacist and a handful of conspiracy theorists, is the new normal in America.”

Burning the flag has long been viewed by many Americans as distasteful and even disrespectful. But it has been considered an act of free speech, and never deemed a criminal offense. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that burning the flag is protected by the Constitution.

In 2006, an effort to amend the Constitution to allow for criminal penalties for flag burning came within one vote of getting through the Senate. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, now the majority leader, rebuffed his own party despite serving as whip at the time.

The amendment fell 66-34, one vote short of the two-thirds needed to advance.

McConnell made clear in a column and other public statements at the time that he abhorred the practice. But flag burning has fallen within McConnell’s wide definition of protected speech under the First Amendment.

“No act of speech is so obnoxious that it merits tampering with our First Amendment. Our Constitution, and our country, is stronger than that,” McConnell wrote.

“Weakening our First Amendment could also set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the Bill of Rights. If we successfully carve out an exception to one basic freedom, perhaps those who seek to curtail our Second Amendment rights — the right to bear arms — will carve out another,” he wrote. “Or the right to own private property, as expressed in the Fifth Amendment, could come under assault.”

McConnell wrote about that vote in his memoir “The Long Game.”

“Speech is speech and it’s certainly not the role of the government to decide what is offensive and what is not,” he wrote. “What I was ultimately fighting for on this issue was not just our flag but what it represented: our freedom. You could not guarantee other freedoms by limiting one.”

While the idea of criminalizing flag burning has been popular, the Supreme Court held it to be speech protected by the First Amendment in a pair of 5-4 rulings in 1989 and 1990.

First, in Texas v. Johnson, the court found that a Texas law used to convict a protestor for desecrating a flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas violated the free speech protections in the First Amendment. Congress passed a federal law in response, which the court struck down in United States v. Eichman in 1990.

The majority in both cases included Justice Antonin Scalia, the reliably conservative justice who died Feb. 13. During the campaign, Trump said he would appoint judges in the mold of Scalia.

“If I were king I would not allow people to go about burning the American flag,” Scalia told CNN in a 2012 interview. “However we have a First Amendment, which says the right of speech will not be abridged, and it is addressed in particular to speech critical of the government. I mean that was the main kind of speech tyrants would seek to suppress.”

“Burning the flag is a form of expression. Speech doesn’t just mean written words, or oral words, it could be semaphore,” Scalia said. “Burning a flag is a symbol that expresses an idea: I hate the government, the government is unjust, whatever.”

Niels Lesniewski, Bridget Bowman and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Rep. Henry Cuellar carjacked in Navy Yard neighborhood

FTC, Justice take on digital giants as Congress dawdles

Capitol Ink | Unsafe at any speed

Maintenance backlog grows at national parks as funding tightens

Forget the high-fives — Congress just sold out Ukraine

Rule for Legislative Branch bill would reinstate member COLA ban