I remember briefly obsessing about flag-burning once during my college years; I seem to recall a flag-burning Constitutional amendment came within a vote or two in the Senate of being sent to the states. I also remember vacillating wildly about the issue. I haven't given it much thought since then, mainly because no one else has, but now I see it's back in the news. What are we reactionaries to make of it? (Note that by flag desecration I mean any act directed toward a flag which is aimed at sullying it, such as burning it in protest, cutting or tearing it, trampling it, or smearing it with foul substances; the burning of a flag in accordance with protocols for its proper retirement are not of interest here).
First, let's orient the discussion toward its proper object. There is no sense complaining that such a ban would run afoul of anyone's rights. There is no natural right to do it that I can discern, and whether or not there ought to be a civil right to that effect is precisely what's at issue here. At best, one could make a case that banning flag desecration would run afoul of other people's natural rights. But that only gets us so far: justice itself entails the restriction of rights when the crime is of sufficient gravity to justify it. Thus the murderer loses his freedom of movement when he is imprisoned, while lesser crimes are punished with proportional restrictions or impositions; in other words, it doesn't go beyond "the means must be suited to the ends"; it says nothing about the character of the end. So the proper question ought to be, "Is the desecration of the flag a grave enough matter to justify legal enforcement of its prohibition?"
Probably so, although there's certainly room for debate about the extent or form of the prohibition. A flag is an existential representation of a group of people, an expression of their self-consciousness as a people and not merely a mass of alienated persons. In a sense, then, to desecrate the flag is to consciously attack the deliberate self-expression of a united people. Insofar as social unity is a good thing, and thus a thing to which people have a right, they also have a right to demand that the symbols through which this unity is expressed be protected, and thus a right to forbid the desecration of those symbols. There is a reason, after all, that it's called flag desecration -- that is, de-sacralization, or the removal of a thing's sacred character -- and not merely flag destruction.
To the modern, people's objection to the desecration of the national flag is incomprehensible: it's just a variegated bit of fabric, after all. But in registering this objection, he betrays nothing but the autistic insensibility of his soul to the importance of representations in organizing man's social life; he also exposes himself as a materialist (and, consequently, exposes the vacuity of the idea of "values" in a materialist ontology, despite his objection that it need not lead to nihilism). He may acknowledge the fact that flag-burners themselves don't feel as if they're just burning a colorful strip of cloth, but in doing so he will probably say that the flag is nothing more than a receptacle for the projections of collective consciousness. But in saying this, he has given the game away. The flag is an expression of the people's self-consciousness, and this is what endows it with value; that it would still serve this purpose even if the flag had a different shape, color, or content changes nothing. It's true that any given flag is an arbitrary design; but it's true only in the sense that any given man has made an arbitrary choice of wife -- it is not then follow that his wife doesn't matter or that he has no duties toward her. Haecceity matters.
Conversely, another commonly-heard objection is that the flag is, indeed, a symbol -- but a symbol of freedom. Thus, the logic goes, prohibiting the kind of freedom of expression that allows a flag to be burned would be an insult to the flag, not a protection of it. (This is the logic hinted at in Michael Douglas' final speech in The American President). But this is very little more than propositional nationalism, that is, the idea of America not as a nation but as some sort of nebulous ideal; we might also call it universalized nationalism. As such, it is runs afoul of the same absurdities as propositional nationalism does: it means that "American" corresponds not to national citizenship but to adherence to some ideal. We know this is false, though, or at least that no one takes it seriously, because there are plenty of Americans who don't believe in that ideal and plenty of non-Americans who do. Clearly, "American" is not an ideology but a nationality: it relates to identity, concrete, particular, and historical. To be American is not (necessarily or exclusively) to be a democrat or a libertarian or a capitalist but to be a citizen of the United States, subject to the authority of its government and sharing in a common culture, heritage, and network of traditions as those who also share this identity. A second response to this conflation of the flag-as-freedom is that it's obviously self-contradicting: if the flag is a symbol of freedom, why do protestors burn it and not some other symbol? Because they hate freedom? Why, then, do they insist on the freedom to burn the flag? Protestors themselves never think they're burning the flag as an expression of hatred for freedom but as an expression of hatred for the political expression of the people, that is, of this or that government (usually because of this or that action they disapprove of). In short, the modern can oppose a prohibition on flag desecration only by emptying both the flag and the act of burning it of symbolic content -- in other words, stripping both the object and the protest of meaning. (I suppose that is basically modernity in a nutshell: the intentional destruction of meaning for the sake of enthroning a subsequently meaningless freedom).
A final objection is that prohibiting flag desecration is unnecessary, either because it won't stop people from desecrating them or because it rarely ever happens. The latter is probably the best possible objection: that there are simply more pressing issues at hand. This may be true, but note that it is an argument related to the circumstances of the present time. It says nothing about whether or not such a law would be good in principle. As for the former objection, it is not necessary at all that the law actually suceed in stopping anyone from burning the flag: it is enough for it to serve as an expression of the common will, that this particular symbol has meaning and value and will be protected.
So the flag is a concrete symbol of a concrete people, an expression of themselves as a common people; and insofar as communal self-expression is a good, it follows that destruction of communal self-expression is an evil, and thus that the people are within their rights to demand that it not be permitted.
What form, then, should the prohibition take? Should flag desecration be a misdemeanor or a felony? Should it be punished with a fine (if so, how much?), imprisonment (if so, for how long?), or both? Should police seek to actively prevent, even with physical violence if necessary, the desecration of the flag, or should it only be punished after the fact? These are valid questions and require a good deal of reflection (especially on ethical first principles); they are certainly beyond the scope of this post, which is only intended to establish the validity in principle of the right of a people to insist that their national symbols be protected. I will say that the importance of protecting those symbols increases as national unity weakens, so that in times of crisis, it may well be more important to protect the flag in times of peace.
Bear in mind I say this as someone who has only a very generalized affection for his country -- there are a few nations in the world today quite as deserving of punishment and reprimand as this one.