Don't Tread on Me

Though protected by the First Amendment, protests involving stepping on the American flag create furors at colleges.

May 4, 2015
A student walks on the American flag at Valdosta State University.

What started as a small demonstration denouncing the mistreatment of black Americans snowballed into a national news story last month, prompting hundreds of protestors to descend on Valdosta State University for a rally that shut down the campus.

The demonstrators were on campus to show their support for the American flag, which was repeatedly stepped on during the earlier protests. Many were also there to show their support for a former Air Force staff sergeant who was briefly detained after attempting to steal and save the flag from under the protestor’s feet. The same sergeant once posed nude with the American flag in Playboy magazine.

Police later found a gun inside a backpack allegedly belonging to one of the students who walked on the flag. That student is now missing, with police believing he is on the lam. A social media hashtag implores others to back the student and his ideology by photographing themselves also desecrating the American flag.

It’s been a dramatic couple of weeks at Valdosta, but the protest there is just one controversy of several involving the American flag to take place on college campuses in recent months.

Desecrating an American flag has officially been considered protected speech since 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment protects symbolic political expression, including burning the American flag. That hasn’t stopped critics on social media and in the conservative press from calling for the students to be punished -- or worse.

"If I see anyone I know step on the American flag I will personally shove the flag of another country up their ass," one Twitter user posted. Others have stated those standing on the flag should be "curb stomped" or have their necks snapped.

Valdosta State, where the furor was especially prevalent, is located in what is considered a military town. Moody Air Force Base is located 10 miles from the city, and the university serves many military and veteran students. In a statement last month, William McKinney, the university’s president, said he remained committed to those military students but also to upholding the First Amendment.

“While we respect the strong feelings held by many regarding our nation and its symbols, we also respect the rights of our students, faculty and staff to express themselves through constitutionally protected symbolic expression in an environment that encourages, rather than discourages, civil debate,” McKinney said. “On April 17, Valdosta State University stood on the side of the Constitution of the United States of America and its students’ right to express themselves, even in the face of widespread disagreement.”

It’s a stance that’s shared by the president of Wright State University. On the same Friday that hundreds of people peacefully marched with the American flag at Valdosta, students at Wright State were standing on flags of their own.

Like at Valdosta, the flag was stepped on because students said they viewed it as a symbol of white supremacy. In a letter to the university, students involved with the protest referenced the 2014 killing of John Crawford, a black man who was shot to death by police in a nearby Walmart. Police said they shot Crawford because he ignored commands to drop a rifle. The gun he was holding turned out to be a toy.

The Wright State protest, too, prompted a counterprotest in the form of a flag rally.

“Wright State University is sincere in its respect for our country and for what the flag represents,” the university said in a statement. “As a university we recognize the act of standing on the flag as an extreme display of disrespect -- especially to our men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces and who sacrificed to protect these rights. We are proud of all of our students who exercised restraint and maturity in the face of positions that challenged their deeply held beliefs.”

The University of California at Irvine also found itself in the crosshairs of conservative media -- and even lawmakers -- over a flag controversy there in March.

This time, the furor was over an attempt by the student government’s legislative committee to ban the flag from the organization’s main lobby space. The argument for the ban was that “the American flag has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism,” that the student government offices should be “inclusive,” that some people don't feel included by the U.S. flag and that “freedom of speech, in a space that aims to be as inclusive as possible, can be interpreted as hate speech.”

Some websites reported that the flag was banned, though the attempt was actually quashed by the student government’s Executive Cabinet. Before long, the university was hearing from alumni angry that the university had allowed such a ban.

UC-Irvine released a statement, calling the effort “misguided.”

“We hold the value of intellectual inquiry and the free and rigorous exchange of ideas as bedrock values of institutions of higher education,” the university said. “And yet, we are constantly reminded that those values we cherish are, in part, guaranteed by the sacrifices made and the struggles waged to secure the freedom and democracy that the flag symbolizes. UCI never takes that for granted.”

While UC Irvine administrators never attempted to ban the American flag, Republican lawmakers in California soon proposed a constitutional amendment that would bar it from ever doing so. If a university were to adopt such a ban, the amendment states, it would lose state funding. “I came to this country as an immigrant searching for freedom and democracy, and I would not be here today if it were not for the American flag,” Janet Nguyen, a state senator, said at a press conference while flanked by Vietnam veterans.

In March, U.S. Representative Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, announced a bill called the No Federal Funds Without the American Flag Act. The bill would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to prohibit an institution from receiving federal funds if it bans the display of a flag on campus. In a statement, Duffy said the proposed legislation was inspired by the incident at UC Irvine.

“I’m glad this was quickly reversed by the student body’s executive cabinet,” Duffy stated. “However, we have a duty to ensure this never happens again.”


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