Another day, another Trump tweet sending the political discourse into a tizzy. The president-elect’s latest outburst concerns flag-burning:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
The proximate cause for his tweet seems to be a contretemps at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where earlier this month students lowered the American flag to half-staff in protest of Trump’s victory in the presidential election. One student reportedly burned a flag as well. In response, the college decided to remove the flag. On Monday, veterans staged a protest of that action.
As usual, who knows how serious Trump is? The Supreme Court has been clear that flag burning is a constitutionally protected right. There have been various attempts to amend the Constitution to bar it, with the last failing by a single vote in the Senate in 2006. If you take Trump’s imprecations about “political correctness” during the campaign seriously, it’s hard to square them with such a draconian reaction to flag burning.
What’s more interesting is the sanction that Trump proposes: “loss of citizenship or year in jail,” an almost comical equation of the penalty for, say, forging a notary seal with the forfeiture of citizenship, and all of this simply for a speech act, albeit one that many Americans find deplorable. Depriving someone of their citizenship is one of the harshest sanctions a government can levy—not as lastingly grave as execution or life imprisonment, perhaps, but still very serious, especially for someone who is not a dual citizen and would therefore be left stateless. (It’s a situation that Edward Everett Hale dramatized in his famous short story “The Man Without a Country,” published in The Atlantic in December 1863.)