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THE HOUSE of Representatives served American freedoms wisely when it defeateda misconceived effort to amend the Constitution in order to protect the flag from desecration.

Trying to protect the Stars and Stripes may be understandable. But approval would have given undeserved momentum to the attempt -- backed by President Bush and many Republican legislators -- to undermine First Amendment guarantees of personal liberties for the first time since the Bill of Rights was adopted nearly 200 years ago.

It would be uncommonly bad judgment to revise the Bill of Rights because of a few crazies who defile the flag. It is a symbol strong and sturdy enough to withstand that.

The Supreme Court has twice ruled -- sensibly -- that desecration of the flag, repugnant as it is, represents a form of speech. It is important to remember that one need not agree with what someone says in order to respect his or her right to say it. Indeed, for free speech to carry true meaning, it must apply to very unpopular ideas and sentiments as well as popular ones.

Fortunately, this reasoning appears to have gained ground over the past 12 months since the high court's first flag-burning decision. The reaction to this year's similar court decision, voiding a statute enacted last fall that made defiling the flag illegal, seemed more restrained. Apparently, many had pondered the deeper issues involved and concluded that the substance of their freedoms was more important than symbols of them.

A majority of House members did vote for the amendment. But the Framers of the Constitution, the James Madisons and Alexander Hamiltons, intentionally made it difficult to upset their handiwork. Though attempts are often tried, the Constitution has been revised only four times in two centuries to overturn unpopular Supreme Court rulings.

So the 254-177 House vote Thursday fell short of the two-thirds majority required to approve constitutional revisions. The Senate could still pass the amendment, but both houses of Congress must approve it for any revision to go to the states for ratification.

Those who get credit for turning back this misguided effort must include the Western New York delegation, where four of the five members voted no. Only Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, supported this symbol over the substance of individual liberties.

Rep. G. V. Montgomery, D-Miss., lead sponsor of the amendment contended that "we owe it to the brave Americans who have died for this country."

Not really. What we owe those brave people who sacrificed their lives for America is a set of personal freedoms kept fresh and undiluted. That, after all, is what they really fought for.

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