"My bill ensures that folks expressing their right show the necessary respect for our flag — and for those who sacrificed for what it represents."
The issue of flag burning has been a divisive issue over the years, and has pitted those who would defend the flag against others who see flag burning as protected speech. Tester's bill, S. 3296, is careful to clarify that the Bill of Rights "should not be amended in a manner that could be interpreted to restrict freedom."
However, his bill argues that in some cases, the burning of the U.S. flag can be meant to incite violence, and in those cases, it should be met with penalties.
"[A]buse of the flag of the United States causes more than pain and distress to the overwhelming majority of the American people and may amount to fighting words or a direct threat to the physical and emotional well-being of individuals at whom the threat is targeted," the bill reads. "[D]estruction of the flag of the United States can be intended to incite a violent response rather than make a political statement and such conduct is outside the protections afforded by the first amendment to the Constitution."
After making these findings, the bill would authorize fines up to $100,000 and a prison term of up to one year against anyone who damages a flag "with the primary purpose and intent to incite or product imminent violence or a breach of the peace, and under circumstances in which the person knows that it is reasonably likely to produce imminent violence or a breach of the peace."
Those fines would also apply to flag burning under the same circumstances.
The fines would grow to as much as $250,000 and two years in prison for anyone who steals and damages a flag belonging to the United States, or damages a flag on U.S. federal land.