Legal Principle at Issue
Whether Gregory Lee Johnson's conviction under a Texas law for publicly burning an American flag in protest violates the First Amendment.
Affirmed. Johnson’s act of burning the flag is protected expressive conduct.
During the 1984 Republican National Convention, respondent Gregory Lee Johnson participated in a political demonstration to protest the policies of the Reagan administration and some Dallas-based corporations. After a march through the city streets, Johnson burned an American flag while protesters chanted. No one was physically injured or threatened with injury, although several witnesses were offended by the flag burning. Johnson was convicted of desecration of a venerated object in violation of a Texas statute, and a state court of appeals affirmed. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, holding that the state, consistent with the First Amendment, could not punish Johnson for burning the flag in these circumstances.
Importance of Case
The Court rejected offensiveness as a valid reason to prohibit speech or ideas and held that actions used to express ideas cannot be banned just because the idea they are expressing is offensive.