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To ban or not to ban flag burning: young democracy takes on old issue

PERHAPS the two young Czechs who burned a small US flag during the public speech of US President George W Bush on Bratislava's Hviezdoslavovo square wanted to demonstrate their disapproval of American policy.

PERHAPS the two young Czechs who burned a small US flag during the public speech of US President George W Bush on Bratislava's Hviezdoslavovo square wanted to demonstrate their disapproval of American policy.

Instead, they opened a long-dormant debate that may very well culminate in an academic discussion over whether flag burning is a justifiable expression of free speech and should therefore be protected under freedom of expression clauses.

Slovakia's Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic told the daily SME yes - flag burning, he said, could be a legitimate expression of a dissenting opinion, even if a very stupid one.

But, apparently, the destructive act is legitimate only in certain circumstances.

In reference to the flag-burning incident February 24, Lipšic said that considering the proximity of the crowd, setting fire to the flag could be characterized as disturbing the public peace.

Still, Lipšic told SME that banning the burning of flags is at odds with freedom of expression.

Whether governments should make flag burning legal or illegal has been a lengthy and trying discussion for democracies much older than Slovakia. It remains a controversial issue in the protection of both free speech and freedom of expression.

Flag burning is a more complicated issue than it seems as it opens up a debate that pertains to semiotics: Should symbols be legally shielded from abuse because to defame the symbol is to defame the thing itself?

The United States itself has been in the throes of a seemingly endless debate about whether the "symbolic conduct" of flag burning can be protected under the First Amendment.

Many argue that flag burning is not likely to endanger state security or the public safety; consequently, its uniform prohibition should not be tolerated.

Those who want to ban flag burning argue that a nation's flag is, in fact, a symbol of the country and should therefore be protected from slander and abuse. They also say that setting fire to a flag does not convey any specific message that the person could not easily - even more accurately - communicate through other, less "sinister" means.

The latter argument has weaknesses. Protestors throughout history have set fire to flags as a way to express strong disagreement with the official policies of the given state. Flag burning can be the ultimate sign of revolt. But the act could be also used to defame and humiliate a nation.

Of course, the reason behind setting fire to a country's flag can be banal as well. Perhaps the most important thing is to evaluate the motive connected to the protest.

In the case of the two young Czechs, were they lighting the US flag on fire to express disagreement with US policies or were they saying something different?

If nothing else, the case is sure to make the general Slovak public even more sensitive to issues of free speech and freedom of expression. After decades of Communist rule, the country is still orienting itself, finding its bearings in the labyrinth of rights and duties. Expressing an opinion and cause for libel are still dangerously close.

This is precisely why Slovak politicians should be as transparent as possible in explaining why certain security measures were taken during the Slovakia Summit; why certain people were banned from carrying posters and slogans; and why private citizens, innocent in the eyes of the law, were not allowed admittance into the country.

The issue of human rights and freedom of speech served as a discussion topic at the summit meeting between US President George W Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It should also be central to public debate when it examines the conduct of the police and special security units during the event.

The public needs to know that Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms extends the protection of free speech to the protection of freedom of expression.

Certainly, the law cannot protect an unlimited variety of conduct as an extension of "speech". But given its history, flag burning is likely to be viewed as a specific expression of "political" attitude, even if not the most intelligent one.

Lipšic was not the only one who felt that freedom of expression was violated during Bush's speech.

Human rights groups objected that English-speaking security personnel took away placards from people that were not preventing anyone from following the spectacle. They view this as a violation of the right of individuals to express themselves freely.

The Interior Ministry refused to tell the daily SME why signs and placards were forbidden at Bush's public appearance as they presumably did not represent a security threat. The ministry officials advised the paper to contact the US embassy in Bratislava.

When SME called the US Embassy, they reportedly told the daily to contact the White House, as Washington organized Bush's public speech.

For its part, the public barely seemed to register surprise let alone annoyance that security personnel would curtail freedom of expression to a certain degree in the interests of public safety and state security. As a courtesy and to honour the public's trust, state officials should make sure that even the slightest restrictions are properly explained and justified.

By Beata Balogová

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