1989 June 21

Supreme Court Rules Texas Flag-Burning Law Unconstitutional


In Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court on this day ruled that a Texas flag-desecration law was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. Gregory Lee Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, had burned the American flag during demonstrations at the 1984 Republican Party Convention in Dallas, Texas.

Writing for the majority in a 5–4 decision, Justice William Brennan wrote that “under the circumstances, Johnson’s burning of the flag constituted expressive conduct, permitting him to invoke the First Amendment… Occurring as it did at the end of a demonstration coinciding with the Republican National Convention, the expressive, overtly political nature of the conduct was both intentional and overwhelmingly apparent.”

The Court, however, rejected the idea that a “limitless variety of conduct” could be considered speech under the First Amendment.

The decision touched off a national uproar, and Congress considered but narrowly defeated an amendment to the Constitution that would prohibit flag burning. It did, however, amend the 1968 Flag Protection Act (July 5, 1968) to strengthen penalties for flag desecration. The Supreme Court declared that law unconstitutional in the case of United States v. Eichman, on June 11, 1990.

Learn more: Robert Justin Goldstein, Flag Burning and Free Speech: The Case of Texas v. Johnson (2000)

And learn more about the flag burning cases: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/flagburning.htm

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