Students Threatens to Burn Flag for Class Discussion

“Today, we are going to burn a flag in class,” said Michael Martin at the beginning of David Vergobbi’s Freedom of Expression class on Tuesday.

In front of a class of 30, Martin stood behind a propane burner, a dozen U.S. flags, a fire extinguisher and a metal garbage can placed on a table.

A senior studying political science, he admitted to knowing that such actions were illegal, but smiled as if he enjoyed defying the law. One student borrowed Martin’s cell phone threatening to notify the police once he ignited the flag.

Students opened windows to vent the smoke as Martin lit the propane burner and moved it closer to the flag.

Students began questioning Martin’s actions asking, “Why are you doing this?”

He didn’t answer.

But when Martin held the burner in one hand and threatened to precede, classmate David Reichner ran to the front of class and snatched the flags away from Martin saying, he could not let him burn the U.S. flag in class.

Turns out Martin never planned on following through with his threats.

Martin was just one of four students involved in a class presentation to discuss the difference between words and actions.

“The words he used got [the class] riled up,” said Kacy Robinson, student presenter. “But do those words make [flag burning] an act? No.”

The students’ presentation was based on ideas presented in articles written by Franklyn Haiman, former president of American Civil Liberties Union, in which he addresses the issue of speech-action theory.

Martin admitted he purposely didn’t give the students a reason why he wanted to burn the flag, because it could have added credibility to his argument.

“If I had told [the class] I was burning the flag because it was worn and soiled and needed to be retired?an action that Boy Scouts do on a regular basis?would you have reacted differently?” Martin asked.

Many class members nodded.

But Martin didn’t start a class discussion by talking about retiring the flag. Instead he began by stating that in class he would be asking students to voluntarily destroy the flag.

On the chalkboard Martin wrote the state code protecting the flag. It states, “A person is guilty of abuse of a flag if he: ?intentionally places?a flag of the United States or State Flag?by casting contempt by mutilation, defacing, defiling, or burning or trampling upon it.”

The action is considered a class B misdemeanor and is punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to one year in prison.

“They misunderstood everything,” Martin said after the class ended. “In their minds I was going to violate the law. The presentation proved that you don’t need to burn the flag to speak about it. “

One student expressed relief that the flags weren’t burned while others said they wished he would have done it.

“The discussion really forced students to examine the meaning of free speech,” said John Armstrong, communication teaching assistant.

Armstrong filled in for Vergobbi who was unable to attend Tuesday’s discussion because he was caring for his sick mother in Idaho.

The flag-burning discussion was followed by an unlawful marriage performed by student Amy Sorensen and a discussion on authority.

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