Texas v. Johnson Significance: The Supreme Court Case That Protected Flag Burning

Flag burning has been used as an act of political protest and resistance throughout American history, but it wasn’t until the late-20th century that it became recognized as a constitutionally protected right. 

In 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson protested the policies of the Reagan administration by burning an American flag during the Republican National Convention in Texas. Johnson and a group of nearly 100 other protesters marched through the streets of Dallas, spray-painting buildings and staging die-ins to dramatize the consequences of a potential nuclear war. Arriving at Dallas City Hall, Johnson doused an American flag in kerosene and set it on fire. As the flag burned, Johnson and his fellow protesters chanted, “America the red, white, and blue, we spit on you!”

At the time, burning or desecrating the American flag was a criminal offense in the state. As a result, Johnson was arrested and charged with violating Texas’s flag desecration law. As punishment, he was sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine. 

After being convicted by a trial court, however, a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the decision, ruling that the state could not punish Johnson for burning the American flag because it amounted to “expressive conduct,” or symbolic speech, and was therefore protected by the First Amendment. In response, Texas appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and ultimately affirmed the lower appeals court’s ruling five years later, in 1989.

In Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Johnson, overturning flag desecration laws in 48 states. The controversial 5-4 decision held that flag burning is a form of symbolic speech, which is protected under the First Amendment. Therefore, any laws prohibiting flag desecration are unconstitutional. In the majority opinion, Justice William Brennan agreed with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing that flag burning is a type of peaceful protest, and that while it conveys a message that many people may find offensive, that alone is not enough to justify the suppression of free speech. Brennan concluded that the Texas flag desecration law, under which Johnson was convicted, discriminated against him based solely on his point of view, which is unconstitutional.

The court had previously upheld similar laws in slightly different cases — as in Halter v. Nebraska, which upheld a state ban on using the American flag in advertising — but it had been inching toward granting more expansive protections for flag desecration since the 1960s. In Street v. New York, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Sidney Street, who burned his own American flag to protest the attempted assassination of civil rights leader James Meredith. In 1974, the Supreme Court handed down a similar ruling in Spence v. Washington, in which the court reversed the conviction of Harold Spence, a college student who displayed, outside his home, an upside-down American flag with a peace symbol taped on it to protest the Vietnam War.

Source link

Get in Touch


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related Articles

Get in Touch


Latest Posts