Texas V. Johnson

Texas V. Johnson

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Texas v. Johnson (1989)
In 1984, following a protest march through the streets of Dallas, Texas against the policies of the Reagan Administration, Gregory Lee Johnson was handed an American flag. Outside the Dallas City Hall, Johnson through the flag onto the ground, poured kerosene on it, and set fire to it. Many protesters around Johnson began a chant of, "America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you!" While many protesters agreed with what Johnson had done, there were several others who felt extremely offended. In fact, one such person felt the need to gather the remains of the flag which he then buried in his yard. The protest was a nonviolent one and no one standing nearby was hurt or threatened.
At this time, 48 of our 50 states had in place laws that prohibited the public burning of the American flag. Texas, of course, was one of these. This caused Johnson to be charged with "the desecration of a venerated object." He was found guilty and faced a sentence of a $2,000 fine and one year in prison. Johnson, appalled by this decision, appealed his case to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas. This court agreed with the prior one and ruled to have his conviction stand.
In response, the still angry Johnson appealed his case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. This court, unlike the previous two, found Johnson to be innocent because it found that the First Amendment protected Johnson's behavior. To arrive at this decision, the court first quickly decided that Johnson's actions feel under the First Amendment protection of free speech because it was expressive conduct. Because of this, the state would need to prove that circumstances existed which would make the state interest outweigh the First Amendment. The court found that there was not a strong enough state interest to overrule the protection of the First Amendment and overturned the previous ruling. Upset with this, The State of Texas appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Court agreed to hear the case in 1988. The decision was made in 1989.
In the Supreme Court, a 5-4 decision was made in favor of Johnson. They ruled that the First Amendment did, in fact, protect this action and found that the state's interest was not compelling enough to override the amendment. The majority opinion for this case was written by William J.

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Brennan, Jr.. He was joined in his opinion by justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy. Dissents were written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was joined by Byron White and Sandra Day O'Connor, and by John Paul Stevens.
The majority opinion, written by Brennan, Jr., first states that Johnson's act constitutes speech. This precedent was set in the cases of Stromberg v. California and Tinker v. Des Moines. Both cases ruled that certain actions constituted speech. This decision came with little resistance because of these precedents. Because his action was ruled as being speech, it was therefore protected under the First Amendment unless the state of Texas could present a reason to override the amendment. The main question that needed to be argued was "whether Texas has asserted an interest in support of Johnson's conviction that is unrelated to the suppression of expression."
Texas decided to argue their case on two points. The first was that the U.S. has a "compelling interest in preserving a venerated national symbol." The second was "that the state had a compelling interest in preventing breaches of peace." This second point was quickly rejected because this act created no breach of peace nor was its intent to create immediate breaches of the peace. This ruling stems from the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio in which it was ruled that only speech that incites "imminent lawless action," may be punished. For the first point, Texas claimed that this burning of the flag degraded a national symbol and that Texas should be able to prevent this. The court did not agree with this and famously stated, "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 itself offensive or disagreeable." The court therefore ruled 5-4 in favor of Johnson.
The main dissenting opinion, written by Rehnquist, states that the flag, "does not represent the views of any particular political party, and it does not represent any particular political philosophy. 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." Because of this, he states that he feels the First Amendment does not invalidate the laws of 48 out of the 50 states. Rehnquist was also quoted saying that flag burning, "is no essential part of any exposition of ideas but rather the equivalent of an inarticulate grunt or roar that is most likely to be indulged in not to express any particular idea, but to antagonize others." Basically, Rehnquist felt that there was more to this flag burning than just the protest of Reagan. He felt that it was an act done intentionally to get a reaction from others.
The decision made by the Supreme Court in this case resulted in the invalidation of the laws in 48 of 50 which prohibited the burning of the U.S. flag. Many times Congress has tried to pass amendments to protect the flag but each year they have failed. In response to this case, the 1989 Flag Protection Act was passed making it a federal crime to destroy a flag. This Act was repealed by the same 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court when it was brought to trial in the case of United States v. Eichman in 1990.
I feel that this decision was a good one. Even though I respect the flag and believe it is the greatest symbol of our nation, I understand that there are some who may feel differently. The First Amendment should protect them as much as it does me. While I may not agree with someone burning a flag, I certainly feel it is legal for them to do so, especially when it has an intended purpose such as, in this case, protesting Reagan's administration. While the flag may deserve to have some rights, the rights of the citizens of the country are more important. This case was critical to protecting the freedom of speech that we all have grown to appreciate.
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