Is a Brooklyn flag burning protest free speech or wrongheaded offensiveness?

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BROOKLYN — It's the emblem of our country, and countless thousands of people have died defending it. A protest group's decision to publicly burn the American flag on Wednesday evening raises a variety of questions about the legality of that act of dissent, and about the judgment of anyone who wants to protest in that way. It's a subject that sparks understandably strong, but diverse, reactions.

"They won't throw you in jail for burning the American flag?" asked Rochelle Diaz-Moore, of Brooklyn.

"That's insane," said Jared Tamashiro, who works in the Financial District. "It's really wrong, because this is the best country in the world."

Merlinda Fernandez was not so supportive. "Isn't the flag supposed to be freedom?" she asked, regarding flag burning, "and nobody here has any, so why not" burn the flag, she said.

"It's unconstitutional," said a tourist from Southern Illinois, but the fact is that flag burning has been upheld time and again by courts and legislatures over the past 226 years.

That's how long the Bill of Rights has been in effect, that bill, which is the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was introduced and approved here in New York, when the nation's capital was located here in the late 1700's.

The First Amendment to the Constitution bars Congress from making any law "abridging freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble."

On Thursday, the group Disarm NYPD said it intended to peaceably assemble, and freely speak their minds against what the group calls a symbol of oppression: the flag of the United States.

"Merely standing in a public place and burning a flag," said Corey Stoughton, a civil rights attorney, " is speech pure and simple."

Stoughton is the supervising senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, and has won dozens of civil rights cases. She also teaches an NYU Law School course on the subject. Her job is to protect the rights of people like the flag burning group, and she says it's actually in the interest of all Americans to do so.

"America was founded on the notion that dissenters against the government should be allowed to express their point of view," Said Stoughton in an interview.

But not everybody supports everyone else's right to speak freely. The list of naysayers includes a majority of members of Congress. In 1968, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act to try and stop anti-Vietnam War protesters from flag burning. The law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1989.

Since then, though, Congress has tried six different times to create a new law banning American flag burning, and failed. In its last attempt, in 2006, the measure was just one vote shy, thanks in part to popular sentiment in support of such measures.

"I think they should get kicked out" of the country, Wall Street worker Roman Khazanov said about burners of the American flag. "There's no country better than this."

His response, though, was mild, compared to responses on the Facebook page of the Brooklyn flag burning group, Disarm NYPD.

"I am praying that a few patriots with some automatics and dum-dum rounds attend and blow their black stupid ignorant asses to hell.," wrote Frank Womack.

"Come burn my flag," wrote Martin Goetz. "Will shoot you Dead before you try to run! what a bunch of Inbread rejects."

PIX11 duplicated their comments verbatim, including spelling errors, but dictates of good taste prevent us from sharing some of the other comments made on the group's Facebook page.

The fact is, though, hateful speech against flag-burning is also protected by the First Amendment, no matter how threatening, racist or otherwise offensive it may be.

"Speaking personally," said Stoughton, "I see why people get upset about flag burning." She said that because the flag represents people's freedoms, she would never burn the flag. But because one of those freedoms is flag burning, she said, "I will always defend someone's right to burn the American flag, or any flag, as a statement of protest."