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Wisconsin Assembly takes another swing at protecting U.S. flag

The Associated Press

02.19.99

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MADISON, Wis. — Anyone who damages a U.S. flag with the intent to disrupt the peace or cause violence could face jail time and a fine of up to $10,000 under a bill overwhelmingly passed by the state Assembly yesterday.

The bill, passed 81-17, was inspired by the case of an Appleton teen-ager who defecated on a U.S. flag and was charged under the state's flag-desecration law. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which ruled the law unconstitutional last June on grounds that it was too broad and violated the right to free speech.

The measure passed yesterday would make doing such damage to a flag a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, a maximum of nine months in jail or both. The law the state high court struck down was a felony — a more serious crime carrying a possible prison term.

"If someone burns a flag for the purposes of creating a riot or public disturbance that would be a crime," said Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, one of the bill's sponsors. "You could burn one in your back yard by yourself, but you couldn't do it to incite a crowd."

The proposal also would add a penalty enhancer, similar to those already on the books for hate crimes, for those who desecrated flags in the commission of other crimes.

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Gov. Tommy Thompson and other legislators had pushed for a new flag-desecration law in the wake of the state Supreme Court's decision, which removed a law that had been in place since 1919.

Although the new measure is not as strong as the earlier one, it is worth having to send a message about how important the flag is, Jensen says.

Thompson told a group of veterans yesterday that he would sign the bill if the Legislature passed it. The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.

"Our nation's symbol of freedom is more than a piece of fabric, it's a piece of every veteran's heart and soul," Thompson said.

Veterans seemed to support the idea.

"I think if that bill passes, it would have a tremendous impact," said John Schurrer, a member of the American Legion in Milwaukee. "It will restore the young people's faith in government. It sends a message to the young people."

State Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, says that what needs to be protected are the Constitution and the right to express views in ways that others might see as despicable.

"Once you begin to whittle away at that it becomes a slippery slope," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union was disappointed in the vote, said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the Wisconsin ACLU.

"This bill tries to thwart the unanimous decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court," Ahmuty said.

Such a law would damage the right to free speech, Ahmuty said.

"It doesn't make any sense to undermine those values in the name of the flag," he said.

Senate President Fred Risser said although he thought the measure would likely pass, he did not think it would be put on the fast track.

"In my opinion the bill is relatively meaningless," said Risser, D-Madison. "We have laws on the books now that will take care of a situation if someone steals a flag or causes problems apt to result in disturbance of the peace."

Sen. Gary George, chairman of the Senate committee that would get a first look at the bill, said he wanted to hold a hearing to get public input.

George, D-Milwaukee, said he also was concerned the proposal could duplicate existing laws. He said he did not know when the proposal would be before his committee.

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