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#TBT: Texas v. Johnson

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Gregory Lee Johnson burned the American flag in protest outside the 1984 Republican National Convention. Johnson was arrested and charged with desecration of a venerated symbol of the United States. Johnson claimed that he was exercising a first amendment right and the burning of the flag was protected under symbolic speech. His flag burning was meant to protest the policies of President Ronald Reagan. The State of Texas, however, argued that the flag burning was inciting anger in others and created an atmosphere that was likely to lead to unsafe circumstances. A Texas court convicted Johnson of the charges but Johnson appealed to the Supreme Court on the basis that his actions were symbolic speech.

The Supreme Court agreed with Johnson and stated that the burning of the American flag by Johnson as a form of protest was covered under the First Amendment as symbolic speech. The Texas state government could not condemn an act just because it was likely to anger people. The essence of protests and symbolic protests are that they challenge a firmly held notion and are likely to anger those who hold to that notion. Although burning the American flag is highly disrespectful it is still a protected form of speech because of the message it sends.

In general the basis for determining when a citizen’s first amendment rights end are based on whether they infringe on the rights and safety of others. The concept is sometimes referred to as “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater”. This speech would not be protected under the first amendment because of the hysteria that such an announcement would cause. It could potentially endanger the safety of others and certainly inconveniences them in a way that is not acceptable. The justices had to determine if Johnson’s actions impeded the rights of other citizens and residents in Texas. Causing anger does not particularly satisfy this requirement and therefore the Court sided with Johnson.

This is a particularly important case because it sets precedents for current and future First Amendment cases especially as bullying cases and online speech cases are coming to the forefront of legal news.

 

Sources:

"Facts and Case Summary: Texas v. Johnson." USCOURTSGOV RSS.  Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on behalf of the Federal Judiciary, n.d. Web. 7 July 2014. .

Joseph M. Ghabour
Auto, Bus, Pedestrian, Motorcycle accident, medical malpractice and worker's compensation attorney.
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