Is the desecration of an American flag, by burning or otherwise, a form of speech that is protected under the First Amendment?
In 1984, in front of the Dallas City Hall Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag as means of Protest against Reagan administration policies. Johnson was tried and convicted under a Texas law outlawing flag desecration. He was sentenced to one year in jail and assessed a $2,000 fine. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed to conviction the case went to the Supreme Court.
During the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, respondent Johnson participated in a political demonstration to protest the policies of the Reagan administration and some Dallas- based corporations. After a march through the city streets, Johnson burned an American flag while protesters chanted. No one was physically injured or threatened with injury, although several witnesses were seriously offended by the of the flag burning. Johnson was convicted of desecration of a venerated object in violation of a Texas statute, and a State Court of Appeals affirmed. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, holding that the State, consistent with the First Amendment, could not punish Johnson for burning the flag in these circumstances.
The state has concluded that flag burning could:first,stir up peoples emotions enough,possibly resulting in intense public arguments ,violent physical fights,or riots,and second ,serves as an invitation for others to take political protests to the next level,which could be dangerous.
In a 5- 4 decision, the Court held that Johnson’s burning of a flag was protected expression under under the first Amendment. The Court found that Johnson’s actions fell into the category of expression conduct and had a distinctively political nature. The court also held that state officials did not have the authority to designate symbols to be used to communicate only limited sets of messages, nothing that “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea it self offensive or disagreeable.”