Our flagging rights

Our flagging rights

In an absurd turn of events, according to a statement issued by the Hellenic Police, “a 22-year-old Palestinian national was identified and brought in for questioning after he appeared in a video raising his country’s flag during a gathering at Syntagma Square on Sunday” (@hellenicpolice 7/11/2023). Under the police post on the X social media platform, various individuals, many of them featuring Greek flags in their profiles (the type often associated with anti-Semitic views), have posted comments such as: “Deport him and good riddance,” “You, the Hellenic Police, are doing your job. The problem lies within the justice system,” “Deport him immediately and then let Israel take care of him,” “Yes, and what will happen after that? Will he receive citizenship, benefits, housing, an NGO job, and even visit the President of the Republic?” and so on.

According to media reports, a criminal case has been filed against the 22-year-old, and an investigation is being conducted by the State Security Sub-Directorate of the Attica Security Directorate. They add that according to police sources, “the Palestinian is accused not because he lowered the Greek flag but because he raised the flag of another state” (skai.gr 7/11/2023). Gone are the days when people could raise the American flag undisturbed to burn it. What’s truly remarkable is that, even in Israel during wartime with a far-right government, the raising of the Palestinian flag is actually permitted (at least for now, as with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one can never be certain how long this will remain the case).

Freedom of speech protects actions that society may find very offensive, but society’s outrage alone is not justification for suppressing free speech

However, when and for what reason did the act of raising a foreign flag become a crime or an offense to the citizens in Greece? Will the speaker of the Parliament, who decided to illuminate Syntagma with the colors of Ukraine and, more recently, with those of Israel, also face similar consequences? It is a nonsensical situation which seems to originate from the unique status that symbolic speech holds in our legal system. According to Article 191A of the Penal Code (Law 4619/2019), “anyone who publicly removes, destroys, distorts, or defiles the official flag of the state or the emblem of its sovereignty or audibly interferes with the public playing of the national anthem, thereby endangering public order, shall be punished with imprisonment for up to two years or a fine” (translated from the Greek).

In contrast, under more liberal systems, the Supreme Court considers that flag burning constitutes a form of “symbolic speech” that is protected by the First Amendment. “The majority noted that freedom of speech protects actions that society may find very offensive, but society’s outrage alone is not justification for suppressing free speech” (Texas vs Johnson 1989).

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.