As students of a liberal college in Massachusetts, we understand the thought process behind Hampshire College’s decision to lower the American flag after the election to discuss "deeply held beliefs about what the flag represents to the members of our campus community." In the election's aftermath, students at Hampshire, Harvard, and beyond have felt that the country has become a more hostile environment for them simply due to their identities.
Nevertheless, we also understand the backlash that the decision fomented: Many Americans view the flag with a certain reverence owed to the sacrifices made to protect our freedoms. As a result, we are especially heartened by the dialogue spurred by the protest of Hampshire’s flag-lowering and are encouraged by the ensuing reflections of Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash and New England Veterans Alliance founder Derek Cloutier, who both came away from the protest more aware of both sides’ perspectives.
By contrast, there is a third perspective on this issue which takes flag reverence too far and which threatens civil liberties. President-elect Donald Trump’s recent tweet calling for flag-burners to be jailed or to even to lose their citizenship is perhaps the most alarming example of this viewpoint. While the constitutionality and feasibility of such a proposal is suspect to say the least, we must take Donald Trump’s rhetoric seriously, especially in light of his cabinet picks and the emotions unleashed by his victory. Trump was nominated, at least in part, on an anti-political correctness platform, maintaining that political correctness stifles free speech and keeps important conversations from occurring. Ironically, his latest controversial tweet suggests that the President-elect applies a double standard on one of his signature issues.
Such censorious nationalism is not new. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also supported the banning of flag-burning in 2005, but we stand against that instinct now just as we would have stood against it then. Flag-burning, just like Hampshire’s lowering of the flag and the veterans’ protest, is an inherently political act and is a healthy part of democracy. Censoring those who purportedly disrespect the flag—and punishing dissenters in general—would have prevented the conversation and reflection seen at Hampshire College. For Trump to charge that Americans have become too politically correct to have certain conversations and then invoke nationalistic patriotic correctness to censor others is hypocrisy of the first order.This is not to say that we unanimously have no qualms regarding the use of flag-burning as an act of protest. Nonetheless, we respect the late Justice Antonin Scalia's
defense of his vote to hold flag-burning to be protected under the First Amendment in the 1989 Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson: “If it were up to me, I would put in jail every sandal-wearing, scruffy-bearded weirdo who burns the American flag. But I am not king.” Protest is a vitally important part of our political system, and the right to do so must be held sacred, just as Scalia argues. Regardless of one’s opinion of the topic, one must allow dissenting opinions in order to foster mutual growth through conversation. Active proponents of free speech—especially those who found Trump’s stance compelling—should strive to remember this.