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Missouri lawmaker submits flag-protection bill

By The Associated Press


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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Saying the nation's symbol "deserves more respect than the protest message of some liberal hippie," a Missouri state lawmaker has introduced a bill legalizing the use of force to stop someone from desecrating the American flag.

Republican Rep. Sam Gaskill, a former fighter pilot in Vietnam, defended his bill yesterday, insisting the measure would prevent the defilement of an important symbol rather than promote violence.

"You should be able to take hold of the flag and take it off the ground and rescue it," Gaskill said. "If the guy doesn't want to let go of it or he swings back then the person ought to fight back."

When asked if the bill would allow someone to take aggressive action against another person, Gaskill said: "I'm sure they could."

A similar bill sponsored last year by Gaskill failed to escape committee. This year's version was filed as part of Missouri's legislative pre-filing period that opened Dec. 1. The Legislature convenes Jan. 3 and runs through May 18.

Gaskill's latest effort would allow the use of physical force if "the person reasonably believes" such force is necessary to prevent "the defilement or dishonorable destruction" of the flag.

A person using such physical force could not be charged with theft or assault under the bill, which would not allow for the use of deadly force.

Marsha Richeson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union's Missouri operations, fears the bill would end up "encouraging violence and lawlessness." She added that peaceful protest "has been, of course, dear to Americans since the beginning of the country."

Gaskill said his bill attempts to accomplish what Congress seemingly can't — constitutional protection of the flag.

In March, a U.S. Senate attempt to give the American flag constitutional protections fell short, with supporters failing to move dug-in opponents who said the measure would violate the right to freedom of speech.

Senators who opposed the measure argued that attacks on the flag are rare and don't justify what they said would be the first time in the nation's history that the Constitution is changed to qualify First Amendment free-speech rights.

Gaskill said those who oppose flag desecration have rights, too.

"What it represents deserves more respect than the protest message of some liberal hippie," Gaskill said. A person who opposes the desecration of the flag "has a right to make his statement that it's a symbol of our country."

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a flag-protection law passed by the state of Texas and the next year one passed by Congress — both times on the grounds that they infringed on First Amendment rights. Both votes were 5-4.

Richeson, who supports the right to burn a flag, said the American right to free speech means more than protection of an object.

"The flag is a symbol, a very powerful symbol, but one of its symbols is the First Amendment, free speech and free expression," she said, "and that's one of the most powerful things that the flag stands for."


Missouri congresswoman offers first flag-amendment resolution
Flag-protection supporters, awaiting the introduction of another bill, describe Jo Ann Emerson's resolution as a tribute to her late husband.  01.15.99

Maryland lawmakers nix flag-desecration proposal
Some say bill would have violated free speech while others contend that measure isn't needed because of law already on the books.  03.10.00