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Sat, Sept. 21

First Amendment protects flag burning

This past month, Norman Pearlstine, the outgoing Time Inc. editor in chief, quietly quizzed Justice Antonin Scalia.

The event, which took place in Time Warner’s New York headquarters, supposedly was off the record, but media already have reported so much of it that it will not hurt to add Scalia’s views on flag burning. He explained why it was constitutionally protected speech. It’s a pity Hillary Clinton was not there to hear him.

The argument that this famously conservative member of the Supreme Court advanced — actually, reiterated — was that while he may or may not approve of flag burning, it was clear to him that it was a form of speech, a way of making a political statement and the First Amendment protected it. I could not agree more.

Clinton, apparently, could not agree less. Along with Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, she has introduced a bill that would make flag burning illegal. It is probably important to note that this is not a proposed constitutional amendment, and it is written in a cutesy way that does not explicitly outlaw all flag burnings — just those intended to “intimidate any person or group of persons.’’ That’s a distinction without a difference to your average police officer. Not many cops belong to the ACLU.

The ubiquitous Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia quotemeister opines that Clinton is readying herself for a presidential run by adjusting her tint, toning down the blue and heightening the red. He fancies that Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s incipient presidential campaign already is pushing Clinton to the center. A New York Times editorial reached a similar conclusion. It suggested she was “pandering’’ to the 70 percent of Americans who think outlawing flag burning is a dandy idea.

Well, maybe so and maybe not. It’s clear that Clinton is going to have to modify her image if she’s really serious about running for president. (She is, by the way.)

The First Amendment is where you simply do not go. It is sacred. It protects our most cherished rights — religion, speech, press and assembly — and while I sometimes turn viscerally angry when I see the flag despoiled, my emotions are akin to what I feel when neo-Nazis march. Repugnant or not, popular or not, it is all political speech. Her sponsorship of the flag measure calls for reconsideration all around — either by Hillary Clinton and her support of the flag bill or by liberals and their support of her.

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