I wrote this for Sticks of Fire, but as Tommy's on vay-kay I thought I'd post it here.
A Tampa man is in jail for violating Florida's flag-desecration law.
Police say 45-year-old Donnie White stomped on the flag, sat on it, and "rubbed it on himself." He's charged under Florida statute 876.52, under the category "Criminal Anarchy, Treason, and Other Crimes Against Public Order" (check it out, it's almost entirely made up of laws aimed at the KKK):
Public mutilation of flag.--Whoever publicly mutilates, defaces, or tramples upon or burns with intent to insult any flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States or of Florida shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.
First degree misdemeanors are punishable by a $1,000 fine and a year in jail. It isn't White's first clash with the cops; Hillsborough County records show several open container and disorderly conduct violations. Yet Donnie may have more than a public defender on his side this time around; flag desecration laws were struck down by the 1989 Texas v. Johnson Supreme Court case (one my Public Speaking students know very well).
I love America. I cheer for us in the Olympics and World Cup. I vote. I blow sh*t up on Independence Day. I have a flag I fly from time to time. Yet I recognize the semiotic difference between signifier and signified. Donnie White wasn't stomping on America; he was stomping on the symbol of an idea -- an idea that, by way of the First Amendment, protects his right to stomp on it (though I doubt Donnie had any particular political expression in mind).
Flag desecration laws are fairly ludicrous on their face, however -- regardless of their unconstitutionality. This is for several reasons:
1. The U.S. Flag Code is regularly violated. Here's a few examples:
2. To ban desecration of an object, you have to define that object. How do you define the American Flag? If I draw it on a blackboard with chalk, am I not allowed to erase the blackboard? If I make an American Flag cake am I not allowed to eat it?
3. What, exactly, is desecration? How do you delineate between burning the flag in protest and burning it to dispose of a used or worn flag?
Certainly if this story makes any kind of national news, the ACLU will come to Donnie White's aid -- and they should, as Florida's law is in clear violation of Texas v. Johnson. Interestingly enough, Donnie would be in the same situation if he'd stomped on the Confederate flag -- that's illegal in Florida too.