Can You Burn An American Flag? | Texas v. Johnson
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Can You Burn An American Flag? | Texas v. Johnson


Mr. Beat presents Supreme Court Briefs Dallas, Texas August 22, 1984 Protestors marched through the streets, destroyed property spray-painted walls, broke windows and threw dirty diapers and beer cans just outside the Republican National Convention Someone stole an American flag from a flagpole from a downtown building Eventually that flag ended up in the hands of Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade member Gregory Lee Johnson At the height of the protests, ohnson poured kerosene on the flag and set it on fire. While the flag burned, he chanted stuff like “Red, white and blue, we spit on you, you stand for plunder, you will go under” and “Reagan, Mondale, which will it be? Either one means World War III.” Although no one got physically hurt because of it, some people who saw Johnson do this were pretty offended by it. Soon after, police arrested him and charged him with violating a Texas law that said you can’t vandalize respected objects, if such action were likely to get people mad. A Texas court convicted Johnson and he was sentenced to one year in person and fined $2,000. He appealed his case to the Fifth Court of Appeals of Texas, but lost the appeal. He appealed again to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and they actually overturned his conviction, saying the First Amendment to the Constitution protects flag burning as symbolic speech. It also argued that Johnson did not hurt or threaten anyone by burning the flag. Texas was like nuh-uh, and it asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. The Supreme Court agreed, and they heard arguments on March 21, 1989. At first, the Court considered if the First Amendment protected non-speech acts since this wasn’t about Johnson’s verbal communication. So basically, they wondered if the act of burning the American flag should be considered expressive conduct. Ultimately, they determined it was. In a highly controversial decision, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Johnson. The Court said that Texas could not ban flag burning They also argued that Texas’ law that said you can’t vandalize respected objects didn’t prevent disturbing the peace. n fact, another Texas law already existed to prevent disturbing the peace without targeting flag burning. Justice William Brennan delivered the opinion, but I am going to quote Justice Anthony Kennedy, as he put it pretty well. He said, “The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result. And so great is our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a valued principle that dictates the decision. This is one of those rare cases.” The court had two major dissents. The first, by Justices William Rehnquist, Byron White, and Sandra Day O’Connor, argued that the American flag had a “unique status” that should be protected from desecration. Rehnquist wrote, “The flag is not simply another “idea” or “point of view” competing for recognition in the marketplace of ideas. Millions and millions of Americans regard it with an almost mystical reverence regardless of what sort of social, political, or philosophical beliefs they may have.” Justice John Paul Stevens had a slightly different dissent. He argued it was more than about the flag being an important symbol. He argued that Johnson was only punished for how he expressed his opinion, not the opinion itself. So basically, the decision automatically made laws in 48 of the 50 states invalid. However, just two weeks later, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, which made it a federal crime to desecrate the American flag, kind of like a middle finger to the Supreme Court. But the Court had the last laugh. The same five person majority of justices struck down the law in the 1990 case United States v. Eichman. Since then, many in Congress have tried several times to pass an amendment outlawing flag burning, but each time they come up short. Texas v. Johnson, in many ways, started the American flag burning debate, which continues to this day. It has remained important to those who value true freedom of speech, even if that speech is offensive to the majority of people. I’ll see you for the next Supreme Court case, jury!

96 Comments

  • sunnycorax

    5-4 was the split. Is burning a flag really that hard to understand as free speech? Is this just my mind taking freedom for granted but that seems like a rather obvious expression of speech. Sure it isn't verbal but…5-4. This isn't really a Roe v. Wade level complicated issue.

  • Jett For President

    Thank you Mr. Beats! You make amazing videos and you should be more popular! Every time I want to learn about something about social studies I go to you.

  • Zeldagigafan

    So the flag was stolen from building in the area? While that doesn't change my view on the act of burning or otherwise desecrated "respected objects", it is something else the Texas courts could have convicted Johnson on.

  • lazypersonify

    Nope IDC You should not be allowed to burn the American flag. If you’re against America, move to another country period.

  • animalia555

    I could be wrong but I believe even Scalia one of the most conservative justices supported this case. Am I wrong?

  • Adam Smith

    This moron should have been convicted still, not because he burned a flag but because he stole the flag. Even if it's petty it's still stolen vandalized private property and both stealing and vandalism are against the law.

  • Bill M

    Burning the flag is allowed under the first amendment (freedom of speech). But these days that same amendment is under attack where hate speech is concerned. In my opinion that same argument can be applied the flag burning. It is clearly hate speech and quite hurtful.

  • Extreme Pacifist

    what is a flag? A drawing, a shirt, a bumper sticker, a neck tie, cigarette papers, toilet paper, any combination of red, white and blue colors? What is desecration of the flag? Wearing it, adding to it, cutting parts out of it, holding it upside down, sitting on it? Who is to say? Who shall judge? I can feel Pandora’s Box Swelling up, ready to explode open as I write. As Huey Long stated, “If Fascism ever came to the United States, it would be wrapped in an American flag”, and William Blum said it even better, “Propaganda is to a Democracy what Violence is to a Dictatorship”. The American flag is a propaganda tool. It’s subliminal power enchants Americans to proudly follow their leaders, without question. For centuries, people by the millions have marched off to their death for no other reason, but to “defend” an image, colors on a cloth. Even street gangs have learned this powerful mind trap. www.world-crisis.com/analysis_comments/A817_0_15_0_C/

  • Doribi117

    Wait, Scalia sided with Johnson? that kind of breaks me as I am on the same side as Scalia in that regard yet disagree with the man politically.

  • trinne

    Watching news around the world it somehow gives an impression that only US and Israeli flags are made of combustible material. Keeping a symbol, being it a flag or a book, in so high regard that publicly destroying one (bascally a piece of cloth or stack pf paper) runs people nuts is pretty sad. Of course discussing vigorously about things like that works as an excuse for politicians not actually minding about relevant stuff.

    No, I’m not an American. Yes, we do have a flag too and I do value it greatly. Desecrating it, or actually even an American flag, is technically a crime here, but mainly people doing it would just be considered stupid cunts rather than dragged to court. I argue that this is the main reason why flags are not usually burning in Finland.

  • allyourcode

    I doubt anyone agrees flag burning is "speech". Therefore, the only way that an anti-flag burning law can be Constitutional is if there is some loop hole in the First Amendment. Inciting violence seems like a good loop hole to have, but it clearly does not apply in this case of flag burning since Johnson did not use flag burning to advocate violence. The "mythical status" argument is crap, because basically, it would create a "very unpopular" loop hole. That would entirely defeat the purpose of "free speech". Therefore, I officially declare this case to have been decided correctly. You are welcome.

    "I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It."

  • John Walthall

    As someone who loves America and the flag, and is very patriotic, you should be able to burn one. The reason why I love America so much is because it is so free, allowing all opinions to be heard, and it should stay that way. The government should never limit any opinions no matter how stupid.

  • spikethompson2000

    I think if they had charged him with destruction of private property he could of been to prison without much more fuss after that

  • lily monroy

    Honestly though I wouldn't be pro flag burning it is free speech however( you can burn flag, bible, quaran etc ) doesn't mean there isn't consequences . In Johnson case he stole it is the problem "

  • CJ1777

    While I agree with the decision of the court on this one, I don't think Johnson had the right to burn that specific flag.

    It would have been one thing if he went out and bought it and then burned it but he didn't. It was a stolen flag that was then burned. That's vandalism.

    Texas may have had more luck if they argued the vandalism angle instead of "but it's the American flag", but who knows?

  • Brendan Bush

    I think it's crazy that anyone would think it's ok to imprison someone for burning a flag for any longer than they could be imprisoned for burning any other object. Like, if you made a massive pure out of burning flags, and the fire got out of control, and you didn't start it on your property, and you accidentally burned down someone else's house as a result, then I would get it. However, if all you've done is burnt a single flag, I don't see why that should be considered any different than burning a newspaper, or a book, or a cross, or a Bible, or a qu'ran, or any other seemingly important object.

  • Jeff NME

    You what's funny? They probably have secured a guilty verdict which couldn't be successfully appealed if he was charged with theft and destruction of property.
    Burning a flag is in itself is a form of political expression, so if it's your flag that you own: go right ahead and burn it.
    Otherwise you are stealing and destroying some-one else's property.

  • Jurij Fedorov

    One of my favorite cases. Look at Justice Scalia and his vote. He clearly hated that the flag was burned. He probably wanted the flag burner to go to jail. But he voted for liberty and the right to express yourself as a citizen. This is one of the cases that transcends bias, political leaning or personal wants. Unfortunately these cases are not the common occurrence and mostly conservatives vote for conservative laws even if they restrict liberty. And the same is the case for left leaning judges.

  • Jurij Fedorov

    The flag is on underpants, bikinis, pillows, cars, planes, in horrible movies, on drawings, and used in offensive media overall. But burning it offends the sense too much? Makes no sense. The flag is already used to marked everything from matchsticks to cars. It's not a symbol of power. It's a symbol of freedom and liberty as that is how it is used – everywhere.

  • Maureen Edmond

    I agree with the Protection of the Flag act, and it's a shame that it was deemed unconstitutional – how on earth can that be so? This is not supposed to be a fundamental right of protest. We have rights under the constitution that enable us to protest and to address grievances without flag burning as a statement. People fought and died to keep that flag waving on many an occasion. It's a matter of respect!! I'm sorry – I think burning the American flag in protest should be considered a hate crime!

  • ThuleDragon 666

    Dumb fucks, it's not apart of freedom of speech to burn the very flag of our country that grants us that

    It's actually really against freedom of speech and the rest of the constitution. Texas was right on this one.

  • pelumi obasa

    This issue is what separates true libertarians and people who are fans of the constitution from fake ones good on Scalia never fails to make me proud

  • Peter Davy

    As an Englishman, I find it amazing that a bit of red, white and blue bunting attracts so much strong feeling. The only official regulation in the UK regarding the Union Jack is a Royal Navy regulation that says old flags mustn't be cut up for cleaning rags.

  • Jose Starks

    Good for him. The flag burning may be some sort or release that as a long as it doesn't hurt other people I'm fine with.

  • Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

    Sometimes, I think certain people care more about the US Flag than the US Constitution, almost worshipping it in a weird way.

  • Brent Hass

    Supreme court guys: "go and burn it but you are a piece of shit that should be deported to north korea", also, if something bad happens to you, we ain't crying about it

  • Darth1nsidious7

    I don’t care what was burned or destroyed, they stole and destroyed property. This is a crime, so they should be arrested. I agree that burning a U.S flag isn’t a special case though

  • Jojothegodofrandom

    Burning a flag in Dallas is not illegal, but having fire or even a cigarette near a building is regulated, and he DID burn a flag that was not his property, but the cities.
    He would be guilty of destruction of property and currently in law would probably have a proximity of fire issue too.

  • The Supreme Xtream

    If we Ban things such as burning the flag due to a subjective perception of it being divine and ppl getting offended, it opens up the gates to other Hate Speech Laws as well, preventing speech of anyone if another is offended, thus leaving us with no speech at all. Think ab the precedent here more rather than your feelings.

  • Charlie W

    Looking at this from Europe is crazy. I can't imagine any other country doing this. It's a coloured piece of cloth. They're right about one thing though – that many Americans see their flag as some 'mystical' object, and are (from an outside perspective) weirdly emotionally attached to. It stems from the ubiquity of it – the US flag is on every other corner and important building. You don't see that in Europe. The idea of 'swearing allegiance' specifically to the flag looks bizarre too. But even if you are weirdly attached to a flag or other symbol, you have to accept that many people won't be. The US's influence around the world will obviously create some opponents. It's hypocritical to want to censor a victimless act like this, given the big show the US media and government make when their enemies restrict and criminalise similar expressions of dissent towards locally respected cultural icons. Sure, toot the 'freedom and democracy' horn at limits on speech in the Middle East, say, where you'll get similar backlash for 'insulting' Mohammad. Funny how people suddenly switch their principles based on whether they personally like or respect the thing in question or not.

  • Josh Glover

    I don't believe in flag burning, but I also feel that laws against it are more disrespectful to the flag than burning it. It stands for freedom, even the freedom to be an asshole!

  • Chuck Pringle

    Yes its legal to burn our AMERICAN FLAG.
    Just don't do it in front of ME, I'll kick your fuck'n ass Johnson!!!

  • CloudyMcFrost

    Sure if you bought a flag you should be allowed to burn it if you want to. But burning a stolen flag that should be punishable with arrest for the thief and flag burner.

  • Post-Modern Czechoslovakian War Factory

    I hate flag burning like this, but I thought and thought, and yes.
    I think the Supreme Court did the right thing here.

  • Aldemar Delapuy

    I support your right to burn the American flag as long as its tightly wrapped around you, if I see you burning the flag I will follow you home and set it on fire, if I go to jail for a thousand years and when I come out I see you burning the flag I will not have learned a lesson and fuck you up again but worse this time…

  • Anthony Gage

    According to the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone should have the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This Johnson guy, for instance, was just trying to peacefully express his political views by burning the US Flag. Arresting him was a huge hypocrisy on the US's part which claims to call itself 'the land of the free'.

  • Jonas Ark

    Further more i take these as an example. We cant burn quran we cant burn bibles but they can burn flags? Wtf???? I think i have a new project out soon. Titled burn the Torah.

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