A Seattle judge, in the first federal court ruling on the Flag Protection Act of 1989, ruled Wednesday that the new law was an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. "Burning the flag as an expression of political dissent, while repellent to many Americans, does not jeopardize the freedom which we hold dear," U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein said in a 16-page ruling.
Rothstein's ruling, which will automatically be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, came in a case in which four people were charged with burning an American flag shortly after midnight Oct. 28, just after the flag-protection statute took effect.
Their attorneys, who included New York civil rights attorney William Kunstler, argued in a pretrial hearing last week that the Flag Protection Act was unconstitutional.
Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department and Congress urged Rothstein to uphold the new law, saying the flag was a symbol of U.S. sovereignty and the government had a compelling interest to protect it.
In her ruling, Rothstein said: "What would threaten our liberty is allowing the government to encroach on our right to political protest. It is with this firm belief that this decision strengthens what our flag stands for that this court finds the Flag Protection Act unconstitutional."
The decision was first federal court ruling on the new law.
The law was passed by Congress after the U.S. Supreme Court last June struck down a Texas law that made it illegal to burn the American flag.