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Wisconsin Supreme Court rules against flag-protection law

The Associated Press

06.25.98

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MADISON, Wis.—Wisconsin's statute against desecrating the American flag is unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court has decided.

The court was unanimous Thursday in saying the 79-year-old law's language is vague and violates the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

Prosecutor Vince Biskupic, the Outagamie County district attorney in Appleton, said the ruling could be a blueprint for legislators.

"At a minimum, this decision will be very helpful in helping them draft a new law and eliminate the concerns of the court," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the possibility of "appropriately drafted" legislation concerning "non-expressive" conduct, the state Supreme Court justices said.

Their ruling involves the case of Matthew Janssen of Appleton, who defecated on a flag and left it on the steps of a golf course clubhouse in 1996.

Janssen, then 18, said it was a form of anti-government protest. The Supreme Court justices agreed, although they said their ruling caused them "personal anguish."

"It should come as no surprise that, in a country of such great pride, honor and tradition, disrespect for the flag often leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of even the most tolerant among us," Justice Jon Wilcox wrote.

Janssen and some friends had stolen flags to hang in a room where their punk rock band practiced, court documents say. Janssen described the flag as a "symbol of oppression and hatred," not patriotism and freedom, according to the records.

He was sentenced to nine months in jail on two misdemeanor theft convictions for stealing the flags, but Judge John Des Jardins of Circuit Court in Appleton dismissed a felony flag-desecration charge, ruling the law was unconstitutionally vague.

The 3rd District Court of Appeals in Wausau upheld the ruling Sept. 30, 1997.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court said the 1919 law violates the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech.

Nevertheless, said the justices, Janssen's conduct was "repugnant and completely devoid of any social value."

"We are deeply offended," Wilcox wrote.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, which filed a court brief supporting Janssen's argument, applauded the court's decision.

"Regardless of what individual justices' feelings may have been, they also had to deal with the important American value of free speech," Ahmuty said.

"It's those values—freedom of speech, freedom of expression—that the flag represents that make our country strong."

Related stories:

  • Wisconsin high court hears arguments in flag-desecration case 4.10.98

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