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Debate on Tuesday over President-elect Trump’s tweet that burning the American flag should be a punishable crime has been simplistic.

The usual suspects, by which I mean the arguments rather than specific people, have been wheeled out to stoke outrage over what is said would be an appalling infringement on constitutional free speech rights.

It’s true that the Supreme Court ruled, in Texas v. Johnson in 1989, that flag burning was a protected right. And the doctrine of stare decisis, by which courts adhere to their own precedents, means this is now decided law. And it’s been decided for long enough that there isn’t good reason to revisit it now, especially via further amendment of the Constitution. So Trump’s suggestion is unlikely to produce action.

But that doesn’t mean he is wrong about flag burning, or that the court was right when it made its decision. It overturned the conviction of a demonstrator who in 1984 set a flag ablaze at the Republican National Convention. Up ’til then, it was widely accepted that flag burning could be banned without contravening the First Amendment. Congress sought to do so with legislation in 1968, and even in the 21st century, politicians including Hillary Clinton, have supported legal proscriptions against this ugly form of political protest. A large majority of the public also supports such a ban.

So what’s the case for allowing a ban? It’s that the First Amendment makes it unconstitutional to abridge freedom of speech, but not necessarily to abridge every form of expression that a demonstrator might dream up. The point about free speech, as the late Robert Bork said in reference to this very issue, is not just that it is free but that it is speech. The second word is just as important as the first. And it is not just that the two words should be given equal weight, it is also that the second word is “speech,” not “expression,” just as it is not “dance” or “painting” or “incendiary display.”

Why are these distinctions important? Because a core reason for protecting every citizen’s right to voice his or her opinion is so that speech rather than anything else is the currency of political dispute. Political differences can be aired with words spoken (speech) and written (press) rather than resorting to more violent methods. Free speech allows Americans to excoriate their country, their politicians, their policies or whatever else sparks their outrage. It’s like a steam valve, allowing the release of political pressure. It ensures that the battle over political ideas is fought with free-flowing words rather than being stymied until it breaks loose with bullets. It’s one of the reasons power is transferred peaceably in this country.

It is a little ludicrous to suggest that anyone’s right to free speech is impeded by a law protecting the American flag from incineration, when anyone can lawfully decry the flag as a symbol of tyranny, racist exploitation, hypocrisy, or any other evil for which they think America damnable.

Perhaps a ludicrous example might help illuminate how odd the claim is that protecting a national symbol infringes free speech. In Britain, it is illegal to deface a banknote, in part because it means a likeness of the queen might circulate with a comical mustache drawn on it.

No one pretends this law stops the vigorously-outspoken British public from criticizing the queen herself, or the concept of monarchy in general.

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Likewise, America’s federal flag might once, before the Supreme Court decided otherwise, have been protected without undue truncation of citizens’ rights to self expression, and without any infringement at all of the actual right protected by the First Amendment.

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