Dodging A Bullet p. 13

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez

Senate narrowly misses the two-thirds majority vote
necessary to pass a proposal to amend the Constitution
to make desecration of the American flag a crime sp.

IT CAME DOWN to three votes.
The Senate narrowly missed the two-thirds majority vote necessary to pass a proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to make desecration of the American flag a crime.
The measure easily passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year.
“We dodged a bullet that would have gone straight to the heart of the First Amendment,” commented Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment ombudsman.
“I feel like it’s a red-white-and-blue victory,” said American Society of Newspaper Editors president Bill Ketter, editor of the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger.
“I am pleased and thankful that members of the Senate, unlike their counterparts in the House of Representatives, took stock of the most important issue of preserving the principles on which this country was founded more than 200 years ago,” noted Society of Professional Journalists president Kelly Hawes of the Muncie (Ind.) Star.
The three free-speech advocates had spoken out against the amendment, charging that its provisions violate the right to free expression guarantees of the First Amendment.
“Why were we against the amendment?” asked Ketter. “It would devalue the Bill of Rights that for two centuries has encouraged tolerance of all views and the freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of going to jail.”
McMasters and Ketter concurred that the vote came down to a handful of swing votes that included Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), all of whom voted against the measure, which fell three votes short of passage.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Senator [Robert] Dole (R-Kan.) thought he had the votes when he scheduled the Tuesday-afternoon vote,” said McMasters. “There’s no doubt in my mind he had the votes the previous Friday.”
Crediting Ketter with leading the charge, McMasters noted that newspapers in each of the senator’s states ? the Newark, N.J., Star Ledger, the Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant ? all ran strong editorials during those few crucial last days.
The New York Times, which reaches into New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as New York and Washington, also editorialized against the measure.
“I think, ideologically, all three of those senators were probably with us,” Ketter said. The editorials “helped them to know that they were not alone out there in believing it is important to preserve free speech, and in helping to frame the issue for citizens in those states.”
The editorials also helped serve as a “counterweight” to the “overwhelming propaganda” from groups in favor of the amendment, Ketter added.
Ketter commended “the unusual political courage of the 36 senators who stood strong against the bandwagon of public opinion for this constitutional amendment.”
“This wasn’t a popular position, especially for those senators who are up for re-election next year,” Ketter said, noting that pro-amendment coalitions threatened to use a “no” vote against candidates in November.
Encouraging editorials and op-eds in newspapers around the country was part of an ASNE strategy that included intense lobbying on Capitol Hill, an unusual strategy for the group but one believed necessary given the importance of the issue.
Although McMasters does not lobby, he contributed numerous opinion pieces to newspapers and posted essays on the Internet.
But while the issue may be dead as far as this Congress is concerned, Ketter, McMasters and Hawes all stressed the importance of educating the public and keeping vigilant, especially since proponents have vowed to raise it again.
“There is no way in the world this is the end of it,” said McMasters. “Senator [Orrin] Hatch (R-Utah) has promised this will be back again.”
McMasters said he was “very gratified with the results, but I’m not optimistic we call pull it off the next time around unless friends of the First Amendment do a better job of making it clear to the American public . . . what’s at stake and the relatively small problem that flag burning in this country is.”
“We need to be explaining to people that amending the Constitution is a radical solution to a very small problem,” he said.
Pointing out that the “margin of victory for preserving free speech” has eroded each time this issue has come before the Senate, Ketter cautioned that the media “need to be ever vigilant.”
“What we need to do is to explain this issue in terms that the citizens of this country can understand,” he said. “That’s what this is about, the public’s right to free speech.
“The press, particularly, often makes the mistake of framing this issue in the context of the press only. It is the public’s right to free speech that’s most important,” Ketter added. “When it’s explained in that context, most Americans reject the notion that free speech should be restricted.”
Ketter is asking newspapers “to continue to remember this issue and to try, in the opinion columns and in news columns, to remind people what’s at stake in this amendment.”
Hawes said that media should help “spread the word that the First Amendment belongs to all of us; it’s not just for newspapers or other parts of the news media. It is for everyone who lives in this democracy of ours.”
To that end, SPJ chapters around the country are slated to begin public programs about the role of the press in society, which could become part of a larger campaign, such as the “If the press didn’t tell us, who would?” ads.
“In the long term, if we can win over some converts to the First Amendment, maybe we won’t have to fight this battle,” said Hawes. “But in the short term, I think we’re definitely going to have to keep it on the radar.”
?(“What we need to do is to explain this issue in terms that the citizens of this country can understand. That’s what this is about, the public’s right to free speech.”) [Caption]
?(? Bill Ketter, American Society of Newspaper Editors president, and
editor of the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger) [Photo & Caption]

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