Citation. 491 U.S. 397, 109 S. Ct. 2533, 105 L. Ed. 2d 342, 1989 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.
Johnson (Respondent) was convicted for burning the American flag.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The government may not prohibit expression because it disagrees with the message.
Respondent demonstrated at the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas. During the protest, he doused a United States flag with kerosene and set it on fire in front of the Dallas City Hall. Meanwhile, demonstrators chanted, “American red, white and blue, we spit on you.” Of the 100 demonstrators, only Respondent was charged with a crime.
Is flag burning “symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment?
Yes. The burning was meant to communicate Respondent’s feelings regarding the government’s leadership. It was political expression that may not be squashed by statute.
Justice Rehnquist: The statute is Constitutional because it limits only one means of communication. This means is rather inarticulate and not worth protecting.
Justice Stevens: Preserving the symbolic value of the flag is a sufficient governmental interest to support this restriction of speech.
The state is concerned with preserving the flag as a symbol of national unity and respect. It is concerned with the image expressed by the act of burning the flag. This interpretation of the act itself transforms the act from conduct to a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.