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Texas V. Johnson Essay

1710 words - 7 pages

Texas v. Johnson (No. 88-155). Argued: March 21, 1989. Decided: June 21, 1989 In 1984 the Republican National Convention was held in Dallas, Texas. While there, a group of protesters, opposed to President Reagan's reelection, burned an American flag. Specifically, Greg Johnson was seen dousing the flag with kerosene and lighting it on fire. Johnson was arrested under a Texas flag desecration law. He was convicted and sentenced to one year in jail and fined $2000. The State Court of Appeals affirmed but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the decision.

The court first found that Johnson's actions were protected under the free speech clause under the First Amendment. The court also found that since the action was not violent in nature and did not create a disturbance that it was not criminally sanctioned flag desecration. The case then went the U.S. Supreme Court to be argued on March 21, 1989.

The Supreme Court had to find if Johnson's conviction of burning of the flag and breaking a Texas law was consistent with the First Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the court found that it was not consistent with the First Amendment and that Johnson's conviction under Texas law was unconstitutional. Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the court. In order to convict Johnson, the state asserted two interests: preserving the flag as a symbol of national unity and preventing the breaches of the peace.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals first found that Johnson alone was the one that was convicted and that his actions were symbolic in nature and under the circumstances of the event that it was held at, the Democratic National Convention. "Given the context of an organized demonstration, speeches, slogans, and the distribution of literature, anyone who observed appellant's act would have understood the message that appellant intended to convey. The act for which appellant was convicted was clearly 'speech' contemplated by the First Amendment." The court also stated that, "Recognizing that the right to differ is the centerpiece of our First Amendment freedoms," the court explained, "a government cannot mandate by fiat a feeling of unity in its citizens. Therefore, that very same government cannot carve out a symbol of unity and prescribe a set of approved messages to be associated with that symbol when it cannot mandate the status or feeling the symbol purports to represent." The Supreme Court found that the state's first interest of preserving the flag as a symbol of national unity was not made. The state had not shown that the flag was in danger of being stripped of its symbolic value, the Texas court also decided that flag's special status was not endangered by Johnson's actions.

The court also concluded that that the flag-desecration statute was not drawn narrowly enough to encompass only those flag burnings that were likely to result in a serious...

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