Gold Star families and combat veterans say they get that protesters have a right to disrespect the American flag — their loved ones and comrades fought and died so they could do that — but they don’t think those demonstrators understand what they are doing and how much it hurts.

“To me the flag stands for everything my brother fought and died for, so to see people use it as a tool in their protest is extremely offensive,” said Lindsey Arsenault of Northboro, whose brother, Brian, an Army paratrooper, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2014. “I try my best to understand and respect that it is their right, but it’s just so hard when it’s something that is so personal and meaningful to so many of us.”

President-elect Donald Trump breathed new life into the debate yesterday with a tweet that said no one “should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Constitutional scholars and civil rights attorneys responded by noting that flag-burning has been declared protected speech by the Supreme Court.

Also this week, hundreds of people, many of them veterans, protested outside Hampshire College, expressing outrage over the school’s recent decision to stop flying the U.S. flag. The flag reportedly was burned by an unknown person at the college the night before Veterans Day.

Veterans say they believe anti-flag protests reflect ignorance and callousness.

“I am against making it against the law. I think that takes away from our system and dilutes the definition of liberty,” said Chris Lessard, a Newton firefighter and Marine vet who served in Iraq. “I think the way to combat it is education and awareness. If you take a person who wants to and you bring them to a veteran and you communicate and educate, I don’t think they will want to burn the flag anymore.”

Trump’s tweet ironically put him on the same side of the issue as Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who in 2005 co-sponsored the Flag Protection Act. It died in committee.

But Trump’s tweet put him at loggerheads with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who sided with the majority in the 1989 decision that protected flag-burning as free speech. Trump has called Scalia, who died in February, a great judge and would seek to fill his seat with a similarly conservative jurist.

“You will find no more fervent advocate of the First Amendment protections than Justice Scalia,” said Lawrence Friedman, a constitutional law professor at New England School of Law. “His replacement would not change the result of that case, assuming it’s someone who thinks like Scalia did.”

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, “I happen to support the Supreme Court’s decision on that matter.”

John Reinstein, former legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said Trump’s comments “may find a sympathetic audience, but they are a disservice to the rule of law and the Constitution that he will soon be sworn to uphold.”

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(c)2016 the Boston Herald

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