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Facts: The defendant in this case, Gregory L. Johnson, participated in demonstrations that some Americans had organized to protest the policies of some Dallas-based corporations, and the Reagan administration in general.
The demonstrations were held at the same time as the 1984 Republican Convention that was also held in Dallas. The demonstrators marched the city of Dallas with the event culminating in the respondent’s public flag desecration. As he desecrated the flag, no threatening was done on anyone and no physical injuries occurred. However, the desecration of the flag offended a number of witnesses.
History: The trial court found the defendant guilty of violating a Texas statute by desecrating a venerated object. The decision was affirmed by the State Court of Appeals. The defendant appealed in the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas.
Issue: Did the desecration of the flag by the defendant amount to expressive conduct, permitting the respondent to enjoy First Amendment protection? Did flag preservation as a nationhood symbol justify the respondent’s conviction?
The Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas reversed the earlier ruling that Johnson was guilty of desecrating a venerated object. The State of Texas agreed that the conduct of the respondent was expressive in nature. The flag was burned during a political demonstration, which proved its expressive nature. The First Amendment protects such rights.
The court also held that the restriction of the defendant’s expression by the state was content-based. Therefore, the preservation of the flag as a symbolic object by the state must be exactly scrutinized.
The State is interested in taking proper care of the flag, but this does not require the state to criminally punish protesting people who desecrate the flag. Therefore, the interest of the state in the preservation of the flag as a nationhood symbol does not warrant the conviction of the respondent because it is inconsistent with the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The fact that the respondent burned the flag as a political event was taking place in Texas led to the confirmation that his action was expressive in nature. The defendant burned the flag solely to express a political message and thus his action was protected by the First Amendment.
Additionally, the court decided that, because the burning of the flag did not in any way breach the peace of the state, the state’s interest in preserving the flag’s image as a nationhood symbol could not warrant criminal punishment of the respondent.
Yes, flag desecration done as part of a demonstration that is held on the same day as a political event amounts to expressive conduct. The First Amendment allows such conduct.
No, the state is interested in ensuring the flag is preserved as a nationhood symbol but this does not mean that it should punish demonstrators who desecrate the flag without jeopardizing the state’s peace. Additionally, there was another statute on breaches of peace, which could have been utilized in preserving the state’s peace without criminally punishing the respondent.
This case drew battle lines between Congressmen who advocated for Constitutional amendment to allow restraints on desecration of flags and Congressmen who thought that the issue needed to be solved with new legislation, and without amending the Constitution.
Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 109 S. Ct. 2533, 105 L. Ed. 2d 342 (1989)