On Tuesday morning, president-elect Donald Trump returned to Twitter, once again showcasing his disdain for the Constitution of the United States, the Supreme Court, and the rights of American citizens. Apparently still unable to accept that American citizens are protesting his rhetoric and policies, Trump tweeted:
First, I want to say that I personally do not approve of flag-burning. I think that as a method of protest, it is ineffective, unnecessarily inflammatory (pardon the pun), and disrespectful to current and former military servicemembers who see the flag as a symbol of what they fight and sacrifice for. I know that protesters may insist they don’t mean it disrespectfully; nevertheless, many veterans and active-duty soldiers will take it that way, and I believe we owe them the respect of considering their reactions.
HOWEVER – and this is extremely important – flag-burning is Constitutionally protected free speech. In the 1989 case of Texas v. Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court held that citizens may burn the flag in protest, no matter how offensive others may find their actions. As the U.S. Courts website summarizes, the Court’s ruling established that “freedom of speech protects actions that society may find very offensive, but society’s outrage alone is not justification for suppressing free speech.”
Freedom of speech does not protect all speech, and it does not protect the speaker against criticism, mockery, or societal or professional consequences. Freedom of speech does protect the speaker from government retaliation against protected speech. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much flag-burning angers you – or Donald Trump – it is symbolic speech protected by the Constitution, and therefore the government cannot arrest, imprison, punish, or strip citizenship from a protester based on that action alone. Lots of heinous, terrible things are protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech: Westboro Baptist Church’s hateful military funeral protests, neo-Nazi websites, etc. We may despise how others express themselves, but the freedom for them – for anyone – to express themselves is a fundamental principle of American democracy, enshrined in the Constitution. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The President of the United States takes an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It should not need to be said that in order to protect and defend the Constitution, the President should know what the Constitution says. Donald Trump’s reckless tweets show that either he is ignorant of basic Constitutional rights, or he understands those rights and would trample them anyway in pursuit of petty personal vengeance.