Wednesday, July 27th 2016

First Amendment Rights: Has a Historical Symbol Become Too Controversial?

A divisive grassroots political movement appeared on the scene less than two years ago—they call themselves the Tea Party Patriots, a name designed to evoke images of colonial rebels dumping tea into Boston Harbor. However controversial, the movement is gaining steam. Tea Party protests have been popping up all over the country: Denver, St. Louis, Seattle, Nashville, Tampa, Boston, San Diego, Cincinnati, New York City—the list goes on. Although it’s only been around since 2009, the party is using a 235-year-old symbol called the Gadsden flag to suggest a connection to the founding fathers and patriotism. Dating back to the American Revolution, the yellow flag features a coiled rattlesnake along with the words “Don’t Tread On Me.” In the past, the flag has been associated with the military—it’s the original flag of the U.S. Marine Corps—but is now attracting more attention as an opposition symbol.

In Connecticut, lawmakers refused to fly the Gadsden flag at the capitol building in April because of the Tea Party’s “political nature,” but they also refused to display it on the Fourth of July at the request of a group of retired Marines. A man living near Phoenix, Ariz. was recently ordered by his homeowners’ association to remove the Gadsden flag flying outside his home, despite his protests that he wasn’t displaying it to support the Tea Party. The American Civil Liberties Union came to his defense, citing a violation of First Amendment rights. In Colorado, a similar dispute over the same flag is ongoing as well.

Historically, the Supreme Court has protected “symbolic speech,” which isn’t expressly mentioned in the First Amendment but usually refers to non-verbal conduct “intended to convey a specific message,” such as anti-war armbands and flag burning.

Should intent be considered here? Although the flag has recently taken on politically charged connotations, it has a much longer history. Residents in Warren, R.I. were angered when the “Don’t Tread On Me” banner was raised at the town common in honor of Memorial Day along with the American and state flags. The Warren Fire Department picked the flag because many Warren residents fought in the Revolutionary War. It was taken down within a few hours because of the complaints. Should the flag have been kept up since it wasn’t intended to support a political movement? Because the flag is now recognized as a symbol of the Tea Party, will it represent that regardless of its earlier meaning?

Some argue that the flag is offensive because of the conservative views of the party. However, others maintain that the controversial and unpopular ideas are the ones the First Amendment was designed to protect; you can’t censor ideas simply because you don’t agree with them. Should the flag be allowed to fly as a historical symbol but not a Tea Party one? A military symbol? Or should it not be flown at all due to its current association with a highly politicized movement?

Posted by Nancy on September 22, 2010 at 12:39pm.

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