Flag Day and freedom, security and surveillance

On this day 236 years ago, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution adopting as the official flag of the fledgling nation a banner with 13 red and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue background.

It was more than a century later when a teacher in a one-room school in rural Wisconsin began pushing for a national day to recognize the American flag. And it wasn’t until 1949 that President Harry Truman signed into law legislation passed by Congress to officially designate June 14 as Flag Day.

It’s important to recognize and respect the history of our flag, and those who have fought for and with it — including the many who have died.

But it’s even more important to understand that the flag is a symbol of the freedoms and protections provided by our republic, not the reason for its existence.

Misunderstandings about this have led to lengthy legal battles over how citizens interact with this flag.

Can we burn or intentionally trample on the flag? We can. Such actions are protected under the free-speech provisions of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has said.

Can school children or any others be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag? They cannot.

Despite these rulings, the American flag is in no danger of disappearing. It will be displayed in its traditional form — cloth banners on flagpoles — throughout the country today. It can also be found on everything from bikinis to barbecue napkins. And woe to the politician who fails to wear his or her American flag lapel pin at important functions.

We’re less sanguine about the state of some of our most important constitutional protections in the second decade of the 21st century.

Freedom of the press is under attack through actions of the Justice Department, which has secretly subpoenaed the phone records of multiple journalists.

Unfettered political expression is threatened by federal autocrats, who seem determined to use the tax code and other federal laws as cudgels to beat those holding dissenting political views into submission.

And our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches is under direct attack from National Security Agency programs — used by both Republican and Democratic administrations — that gather information from the cell phones and computers of nearly all Americans.

Claims that the government isn’t listening in on all our conversations or viewing all of our Internet actions, just looking for trends, are small comfort since the NSA won’t tell us exactly what it does do with the information. And statements that we must accept these invasions of our privacy in the name of security are equally alarming.

The American flag remains the icon for this nation and the constitutional protections afforded its citizens. But it’s looking a little tattered these days.


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Four items in Friday’s Sentinel – Gary Harmon’s “Udall to brass:  Prove that surveillance stopped terrorism”; the editors’ “Flag Day and freedom, security and surveillance”; Josh Penry’s “Even for national security hawks, NSA surveillance program an affront”; and George Will’s “IRS official Lois Lerner provides reason for distrust of government” –  illustrate pervasive confusion over the content of our Constitution.

While I respect Senator Udall’s informed opinion as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and suspect that surveillance has indeed “stopped [some] terrorism”, Udall would have the NSA “prove a negative” – when there is ample historical evidence to presume the positive.

The Sentinel’s credibility is diminished by its still-unproven assertion that “Freedom of the press is under attack” by a Justice Department charged with enforcing laws enacted to prevent national security leaks, and by embracing the now-disproven canard that federal bureaucrats “used the tax code . . . to beat those holding dissenting political views into submission”. 

Rather than cite “paid liar” Darrell Issa’s irresponsible demagoguery as good reason to “distrust government”, George Will blames Lois Lerner for exercising—on sound advise of counsel—her Constitutional right to refuse to submit to Issa’s partisan “witch hunt”.

“Surveillance” implies a personalized intrusion into the privacy of individual citizens.
The Constitutional right to “privacy” is found only in the “penumbra” surrounding other rights.  The Fourth Amendment prohibits only “unreasonable searches and seizures”.

Arguably, the computerized capture of impersonal telephone numbers and millions of e-mails does not constitute unreasonably intrusive surveillance until governmental use of that database is personalized – which already requires a warrant under current law.

By contrast, Republican-imposed requirements for medically unnecessary ultrasounds are personal, intrusive, and violative of women’s Constitutional right to medical privacy.

Until hypocritical ideologues like Penry, Issa, and Will, denounce such dubious invasions of personal security, they should be distrusted on issues of national security.

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