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Texas v. Johnson
Transcript of Texas v. Johnson
Facts of the Case
1. In 1984 Gregory Lee Johnson demonstrated outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas.
2. His protest was aimed at the policies of President Ronald Reagan. He took an American Flag and burned it while chanting "Red, White and Blue, we spit on you."
3. After the demonstration, the police arrested Johnson for "intentionally or knowingly desecrating .... a state or national flag.
4. Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison and a $2,000 fine.
History of the Case
1. Dallas County Criminal Court convicted Johnson
2. Court of Appeals of Dallas upheld the conviction
3. Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the Court of Appeals decision
4. State of Texas appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
Were Johnson's actions "expressive conduct"?
If so, does the State's interest justify Johnson's conviction?
Johnson's actions were expressive conduct and therefore a form of symbolic speech.
The claimed interests of the State do not justify Johnson's conviction.
Johnson's actions conveyed a particular message AND the message was likely to be understood.
Compelling State Interest
The State (of Texas) presented two interests that the court did not accept as a reason for suppressing Freedom of Speech.
1: The State claimed it was protecting a breach of the peace. However, the court found no evidence of violence at the demonstration so there was no breach of the peace in this case.
"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."
Senate rejected an amendment
to ban desecration of the American
flag. (The Washington Post, 2006)
2: The State claimed to be preserving the flag as a symbol of nationhood and national unity. The court reasoned that since burning an old or damaged flag as a way of disposing of it under Texas law was acceptable, then by not allowing others to burn the flag was not preserving it, but rather only preventing the content of the speech the state didn't like.
Not only in Texas, but flag burning is actually recommended by Congress when a flag gets old. (See 36 U.S.C. Sec. 176(k)
First Amendment Rights
The First Amendment says that people have the right to speak freely without government interference.
The First Amendment gives the press the right to publish news, information and opinions without government interference. This also means people have the right to publish their own newspapers, newsletters, magazines, etc.
The First Amendment prohibits government from establishing a religion and protects each person's right to practice (or not practice) any faith without government interference.
The First Amendment says that people have the right to appeal to government in favor of or against policies that affect them or that they feel strongly about. This freedom includes the right to gather signatures in support of a cause and to lobby legislative bodies for or against legislation.
The First Amendment says that people have the right to gather in public to march, protest, demonstrate, carry signs and otherwise express their views in a nonviolent way. It also means people can join and associate with groups and organizations without interference.