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How do we deal with things that many of us find offensive?

While burning an American flag itself is not

While burning an American flag itself is not illegal in the United States, it's considered to be a great sign of disrespect. But here's an interesting nugget: Once a flag is no longer in a condition to properly represent the nation, it needs to be properly destroyed. One recommended way ... burning it. This flag blows in the wind on a cold winter day in Newstead, N.Y. on Feb. 13, 2012. Photo Credit: AP

The Supreme Court decided just last week that Texas can refuse to display the Confederate flag on its license plates. After the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine dead and a nation mourning, a renewed debate began over the flag that hangs on that state's capitol grounds.

I find the Confederate flag offensive. I know its history and am aware how many Americans, including myself, view its divisive symbolism. Its mutation of the forms and shapes from Old Glory is just that: A distortion of everything that our country stands for.

I am also not a fan of Nazis, flag burners or those who choose a military funeral as a place to protest. In fact, since I am in a rare confessional mood, I should tell you that I find offensive most things that most people find offensive.

The controversy over the Confederate flag in the Texas license plate case and since the South Carolina massacre raise an important question: If states have the power to decide what is offensive expression with license plates, doesn't that conversely mean that states can decide what is not in terms of the flag?

To settle one part of the debate over whether states have rights, the Supreme Court found they do have institutional free speech protection. ". . . When the government speaks it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy, or to take a position," wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the 5-4 majority in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Texas license plate case. "In doing so, it represents its citizens and it carries out its duties on their behalf."

In answering this question, we might also want to introduce a broader query into the dialogue: How do we deal with things that many of us find offensive?

If it seems like an endless debate for the past 224 years over an excerpt of a passage in the supreme law of the land you are not mistaken. The Constitution's free speech clause -- "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . ." -- only makes up a few words of the 8,000-plus-word document. Our understanding of these words, however, has been defined by the things we tolerate not the things we ban.

A popular viewpoint, expressed by a larger group of people over a smaller group -- or expressed by 49 states over the will of one -- must be protected from threatening the unpopular viewpoint, James Madison wrote in 1787. The greatest danger to "oppressing the minority," he reasoned, was "a majority united by a common interest or passion."

It is beneficial to pay attention to the Virginian's logic regarding the Bill of Rights considering he wrote them.

Yet today we are witnessing a shift in thinking about freedom of expression. Although it is not necessarily a legal shift -- the Supreme Court still upholds the rights of Nazis, flag burners and protesters at military funerals -- it should be alarming all the same.

The developing trend shows society may be seeking a false utopia that would, could and should do away with all-things-offensive. This reality is less a vision of the real world and more a handcrafted fantasy version like the one each of us create on Facebook and other social media.

Political decisions regarding flags or other symbolism that represent a state should be subjected to public pressures. Yet the oft-heard "I don't like it, so you can't do it" posture we have been hearing with increasing frequency is anathema to the premise of the First Amendment. In essence, the right of a person, a group or, in this case, a state, to display their own ignorance of mid-19th century American history has ironically shown the ignorance of others regarding our constitutional history.

Our insatiable desire to shield ourselves from the things we find contrary to our own palate -- and our political leaders enabling rhetoric encouraging this belief for political gain -- has had exactly the effect that a censored and stifled society breeds. It has made us more entitled, more divided and more intolerant.

Let's hope the trend doesn't continue.

James Coll is an adjunct professor of American and constitutional history at Nassau Community College. He is also the founder of ChangeNYS.org.

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