Having lived in India (22 years), Germany (five years) and the United States (45 years), I've gone through a lot of conflicting experiences that sometimes have created confusion. But one thing is quite clear - living here has confirmed that my country of choice - the U.S. - has been the right one for me and my family.
Each country has its own policy regarding freedom of speech. Thus, for the sake of discussion, I've chosen to cover countries I have lived in. Most information in this article is from literature and my experiences.
India: I was born in 1937 when India was under British rule. It achieved independence in 1947. My understanding of words like "independence," "democracy" and "republic" was limited.
I was told by my grandmother that, after independence, all citizens of India would be free to travel anywhere within India and do whatever they wanted. India became, and still is, the largest democracy in the world. Early on, the Indian national flag was only flown on government buildings, functions and official cars. However, since 2002, thanks to a seven-year legal fight by Naveen Jindal, an Indian citizen educated in the United States, all Indian citizens are allowed to fly the flag. He got the idea to take legal action after he witnessed how freely and proudly Americans displayed their flag.
The Indian Constitution guarantees free press and freedom of speech and expression, plus other rights, to every citizen. These freedoms are comparable to those in the United States and Western European democracies. There have been, however, cases where abuses have been carried out by the authorities under emergency powers. I have never witnessed the burning of a national flag by Indian nationals.
Germany: Individual freedom of expression is granted by article 5 of the basic law of Federal Republic of Germany. Press is regulated in Germany. Examples of punishable acts include insult to others, malicious gossip and defamation, hate speech and Holocaust denial. During my stay in West Germany (now Germany) from 1959 through 1964, the German TV was "run" under controlled guidelines. No commercials were to be seen. I never saw any desecration of its national flag.
United States: In an article, "Flag burning laws - history of U.S. laws against flag burning," Tom Head writes that, at one time, individual states passed laws banning flag desecration that were upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional.
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court (Gregory Johnson v. State of Texas) struck down flag desecration laws in 48 states by ruling that flag desecration is a constitutionally protected form of free speech under the First Amendment.
Notions of individual liberty, the right to worship and the right to express ourselves are fundamental to America's identity. The First Amendment emphasizes that "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and the right to petition the Government for grievances."
Literature confirms that "if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."
Free expression is the foundation and cornerstone of U.S. democracy.
My comments: The U.S. system is most open. Visitors are surprised to see American flag all over, such as on cars, buildings and clothing.
In 1943, Justice Robert Jackson (West Virginia v. Barnette) wrote, "We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem (flag) represents."
I know that the First Amendment affirms the freedom of the individual and gives us the right to even burn our national flag. I accept the ruling of the Supreme Court but somehow I cannot come around to the notion of desecrating or burning our own flag.
Maybe it's just me. From childhood, I was taught to respect the national flag and I've always treated it as a symbol of our nation. That's why I proudly wear it on my lapel.
May God continue to bless our freedom and the United States.
- Doug Dugal is an Appleton resident and a Post-Crescent Community Columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org