Symbols matter

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The racially motivated shooting of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston has added new focus to the national conversation on the question of what it means to be an American. That we are inheritors of dual legacies of freedom and slavery makes this Independence Day weekend a good time to consider issues relating to the Confederate battle flag.

The Charleston massacre may provide the necessary public pressure for South Carolina and other Southern states to cut their ties to the Confederacy by removing the flag from public property. Some say the focus on the flag — which white supremacist groups and some states adopted in the 1950s in reaction to the civil rights movement — is misdirected, because the real issues are the persistence of race hatred and easy access to guns. Sure the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, posed in photos with the Confederate battle flag, but flags don’t kill people; guns and people do.

But symbolic speech does have implications. The most serious is if the government endorses speech that is seen as hateful, thereby leading to questions about equal justice under the law. That’s the problem presented by Confederate flags flying on state capitols. And it’s why Texas went to court to affirm the right to reject a license plate design with the Confederate flag on it. Indeed, as you’re reading this, other states — including Maryland — are moving to ban such state-sanctioned displays of what is now recognized as hateful speech.

But when it is a matter of hateful symbols displayed by individuals, the First Amendment is clear: They are protected. Whether it is the Confederate flag, the Washington Redskins name and mascot or the Hamas flag, for that matter, one’s offense to them is not enough to deny another individual the right to display them. Sometimes the marketplace decides when a symbol is beyond the pale, but results can be uneven: Amazon.com ended the sale of Confederate flags but not of items with swastikas on them.

We believe those who say the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of their heritage and accept their right to display it. That flag and its message should not, however, be a symbol of their government.

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