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Texas v. Johnson

Citation. 22 Ill.491 U.S. 397, 109 S. Ct. 2533, 105 L. Ed. 2d 342 (1989)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Respondent, Johnson (Defendant), was convicted, in violation of Texas law, of flag burning. The Respondent appealed on the basis that flag-burning was expressive conduct, which should be afforded First Amendment constitutional protection.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Symbolic speech is to be afforded the same First Amendment constitutional protection, regardless of how it is conducted. In this case, a national symbol was burned, as an expression of political discord, but it was the Respondent’s right to do so in expression of his own viewpoint.


At a demonstration during the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Respondent set an American flag on fire and was charged with desecration. At trial, Respondent was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Reversed and the Supreme Court of the United State (Supreme Court) granted certiorari.


The issue presented in this case is whether the burning of the American flag is symbolic speech, which is to be afforded First Amendment constitutional protection.


The Supreme Court dismissed government contentions that the burning of the flag would incite a riot and that the state had the responsibility to protect the flag. The Supreme Court found that the only action Texas undertook, through its conviction of the Respondent, was to suppress his speech, which was an abridgment of Respondent’s First Amendment rights.


Judge William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist), in his dissent, noted that the Texas statute prevented Respondent from only the kind of protest that was offensive to others and did not abridge his rights to express his own views while considering the views of others. Judge John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) found that the flag, in itself, should possibly be raised to a level of protection that is beyond the realm of the First Amendment.


This case, along with the jurisprudence that stemmed from it, stand for the proposition that the First Amendment will always protect symbolic speech, when it is purely an expression of viewpoint and not also a deviation from governmental interests.

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