With roughly seven weeks until President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, Americans have seen the appointment of Cabinet members, a campaign-style trail of rallies and several controversial tweets. Trump’s use of social media in suggesting presidential policies, though, is probably not the best way for him to do it, with many Americans expressing outrage over Trump’s Nov. 26 tweet threatening citizenship loss or imprisonment over the burning of the American flag in protest. This move—while carrying no legal weight—is unfounded legally and overtly un-American in value. Indeed, it appears Trump needs a lesson in history and Supreme Court rulings.
While many citizens may not agree with the use of flag burning as protest, that doesn’t remove the legal right to do so. Citizens may feel that destruction of our flag has no purpose under freedom of speech; judicially, however, it is indeed protected.
Outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas in 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag in protest of President Ronald Reagan’s policies, according to United States Courts. Johnson was immediately arrested and charged with “desecration of a venerated object,” which violated a Texas statute.
Johnson appealed and in the 1989 case Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court had a 5-4 ruling that declared that flag burning is protected under the First Amendment as a form of “symbolic speech.” The justices reasoned that while the protest of flag burning may be offensive to society, it is not society’s outrage alone that is worth suppressing free speech.
Trump tweeted that, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag—if they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Unless major political developments occur, the act of flag burning is indeed protected under the U.S. Constitution.
Not only would Trump attempting to jail individuals for burning the flag be unconstitutional, but so would be removing citizenship for the act. The only causes for denaturalization are falsification or concealment of facts during the naturalization process, refusal to testify before Congress, membership in subversive groups and dishonorable discharge from the military, according to FindLaw.
These legal causes for denaturalization apply to an extremely small minority of Americans—and certainly do not apply to those expressing their Constitutional right to freedom of speech. The day when we practice our right to speak freely and are punished for it—especially when our citizenship is on the line—is an incredibly unpatriotic day for America.
Trump’s statement is not just about flag burning—it is about his inability to separate the law from what he wants to do. The policy impulsively suggested by Trump may break strides with his party’s ideals, but it is just another technique of gathering support through “us vs. them” rhetoric.
This blurring of what is actually illegal and what is disliked can be seen with Trump’s senior communication advisor Jason Miller as well, who responded to CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s statement that flag burning is legal by saying, “But Chris, it’s completely ridiculous.”
By simply brewing distrust in the government and the media—and clearly setting a punishment line between those who support him and those who do not—Trump creates a toxic political environment now and for our future.