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The Supreme Court Monday struck down the anti-flag burning law enacted by Congress last year in a move that has reignited the call for a constitutional amendment to protect the nation's symbol.

Justice William Brennan, writing for a slim 5-4 majority, said the law passsed in anger over a previous Supreme Court ruling was inconsistent with the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech."We are aware that desecration of the flag is deeply offensive to many," Brennan said in his eight-page ruling. "But the same might be said, for example, of virulent ethnic and religious epithets, vulgar repudiations of the draft and scurrilous caricatures."

Brennan then quoted from his ruling a year ago that struck down a Texas anti-flag burning law.

"If there is a bedrock principle underlining the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."

At the White House, President Bush was asked if he would again push for a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag-burning.

"I've not in any way pulled back from my conviction that that is what we need," Bush told reporters. "Some of us said ahead of time that this legislative approach would not be upheld, and apparently the court has decided that.

"So I will continue to press for what I strongly believe is in the best interest of this country," the president said.

House Speaker Tom Foley promised when the flag issue was last on the House floor to put a constitutional amendment before members within 30 days if the court struck down the statute.

Brennan was joined in his ruling on flag-burning cases from Washington state and the District of Columbia by Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy - the same mix of liberals and conservatives from a year ago.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justices Byron White and Sandra Day O'Connor, said that the freedom of expression was "not absolute - the communicative value of a well-placed bomb in the Capitol does not entitle it to the protection of the First Amendment."

Stevens said, "To us, the flag is a reminder both that the struggle for liberty and equality is unceasing, and that our obligation of tolerance and respect for all of our fellow citizens encompasses those who disagree with us - indeed, even those whose ideas are disagreeable or offensive. Thus, the government may - indeed, it should - protect the symbolic value of the flag without regard to the specific content of the flag burners' speech."

However, Stevens clearly showed that the court does take note of what goes on in the political world. At the end of the his six-page dissent, he scolded the politicians who have used the flag to promote their own ends.

"The symbolic value of the American flag is not the same today as it was yesterday. Moreover, the integrity of the symbol has been compromised by those leaders who seem to advocate compulsory worship of the flag."


(Additional information)

Other court action

-The Supreme Court on Monday gave police broad new authority to stop and question someone on the basis of an anonymous tip that the person is involved in a crime. By a 6-3 vote, the justices said anonymous tips can justify such police tactics if the information is in some way corroborated before the person is stopped and questioned.

-Made it easier for federal judges to penalize lawyers who file lawsuits determined to be improper or frivolous. The court, voting 8-1, ruled against Cooter & Gell, a Washington, D.C., law firm penalized $21,402 for filing an antitrust suit based on research deemed inadequate. The justices said a judge had authority to impose the fine even though the law firm agreed to drop the suit.

-Let stand the mail-fraud and tax-evasion convictions of fringe presidential candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. and six associates. The court, without comment, turned away arguments that the seven were denied a fair trial.

-Ruled that public school officials may be sued in state court - not only in federal court - for violating students' rights protected by federal law. In 9-0 ruling in a case from Florida, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court that school boards generally are not immune from such state court suits.

-Let stand a ruling that barred the city of Burlington, Vt., from placing a Jewish religious symbol in a park in front of city hall during the Christmas season.