Montana's wildfire season is raging. Roughly 200 residents were evacuated north of Helena early this week. Officials closed down the Madison River through Bear Trap Canyon in response to a blaze east of Norris. But a fire of a different sort caused a stir in the Bitterroot Valley this month.

On June 19, Stevensville resident Larry D. Lowry allegedly doused an American flag in lighter fluid. Then he lit it. Only the flag wasn't his. It belonged to his neighbor, who called the Ravalli County Sheriff's Department. Lowry was reportedly intoxicated. Authorities took him into custody and released him the following day.

Lowry faces a number of misdemeanor charges. But the kicker is a charge of flag desecration, one that, under Montana state law, carries maximum penalties of 10 years in prison or a $50,000 fine. It's not a charge one sees pop up on crime blotters around here every day.

We're not going to make a case for Lowry's actions. Torching a neighbor's property is, in polite terms, poor form. Hence the added charges of negligent arson and criminal mischief. However, the incident got us thinking about flag burning in general. And frankly, we were more than a bit surprised to see this kind of charge leveled against someone, considering there's no federal ban.

The flag-burning debate has come up time and time again in our nation's history. As early as the 1890s, states began passing laws forbidding desecration of the American flag. Peace activists in the late 1960s burned the flag in protest of the Vietnam War, prompting Congress to pass the Federal Flag Desecration Law. But the Supreme Court struck down such bans on flag burning in 1990, declaring it a constitutionally protected expression of free speech.

Congressional efforts to outlaw flag burning waxed and waned throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The latest came just last year, when Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, proposed a bipartisan constitutional amendment prohibiting flag desecration. Montana's own Sen. Max Baucus was a co-sponsor of the proposal, stating that flag burning is "clearly offensive and disrespectful to our veterans."

True. But the First Amendment is there to safeguard free speech in all its forms. That right to personal expression is part of what we celebrate on the Fourth of July. As long as it's not, you know, arson.

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