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S.D. county judge affirms man's right to burn U.S. flag

The Associated Press


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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A Minnehaha County Circuit judge yesterday declared the burning of the U.S. flag an undesirable but legal form of protest in South Dakota.

It was prosecutors' second failed attempt to convict Steven A. Knorr for trying to burn a flag on Oct. 24, 1998, in Sioux Falls.

Circuit Judge William Srstka Jr. agreed with a magistrate judge's ruling that South Dakota's law against flag burning is unconstitutional.

To show his disagreement with Knorr's act, however, Srstka lectured him on his disrespect for the flag and made him sit in the courtroom while Srstka recited a poem on the sanctity of the flag.

"It's part of America to protest, and I think, son, there's better ways to do so," the judge said.

Knorr's case was the first test of a 10-year-old South Dakota statute.

He was charged with trying to desecrate the flag, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and alcohol possession by a minor.

The misdemeanor charges carry up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Knorr's actions came after police halted a concert outside a home in Sioux Falls because of complaints about noise and public urination.

But Minnehaha County Magistrate Judge Peter Gregory said Knorr engaged in constitutionally protected free speech, and he threw out the flag charges.

Public Defender Rachel Levitt said Knorr was protesting the party's being shut down. He swore at officers and tried to spit in an officer's face as police ended the concert.

But Deputy State's Attorney Gail Eisland said Knorr never said what he was doing and thus wasn't exercising free speech.

"Who knew if anything what message Mr. Knorr intended?" Eisland said. "If he had only spoken that day, we would not be here."

But Srstka said the law can't forbid protest just because it is offensive.

"Sometimes we have to make decisions we don't like," he said.

Eisland said she was unsure whether she would appeal the ruling to the South Dakota Supreme Court.