1984 Republican National Convention

Gregory Lee Johnson's Flag-Burning Incident

Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag outside the convention center during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, as a form of protest against the policies of the Reagan government (Facts and Case Summary - Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), 2017).

Johnson's Detention and Accusation

Johnson was detained and accused of breaking a Texas law that forbids the destruction of a revered object, such as the American flag, if doing so would likely enrage others. The circumstances surrounding Johnson's flag-burning incident, Johnson's verdict being overturned, the general consensus, and the symbolic meaning of flag-burning will all be covered in this essay.

Republican War Chest Tour

"Republican War Chest Tour" is the political demonstration that took place in Dallas and which sole purpose was to show the disagreement with politics of the Reagan administration and with some large corporations activities based in Dallas, as was clearly stated in the demonstrator's literature distributed around and in their speeches. Chanting political slogans, the protestors passed through the Dallas streets, meanwhile making several stops at several corporate locations and stage die-ins to stress the nuclear war consequences (Texas v. Johnson (No. 88-155) 491 U.S. 397, 2017).

Johnson's Involvement

The demonstrators spray-painted walls of several buildings and overturn potted plants; however, Johnson did not participate in those activities. During the protest, a fellow protestor handed Johnson an American flag which he obtained from one of the vandalized buildings flagpole. Johnson brought the flag to the Dallas City Hall where the demonstration came to a halt, wetted the flag in kerosene, and set fire to it. The demonstrators shouted: "America, the red, white, and blues, we spit on you" as the flag burned. No demonstrators were injured; however, some witnesses found the act of burning the flag very offensive. A state court of appeals affirmed Johnson's conviction of desecration of a venerated object in violation of a Texas statute. Under the Texas law outlawing flag desecration, Johnson was tried and convicted as such action was likely to incite anger in others. He was fined $2,000 and sentenced to one year in jail.

Plaintiff and Defendant

Who were the plaintiff and defendant?

Johnson's Appeal and the Importance of Symbolic Speech

Johnson filed an appeal arguing that his actions of burning flag as a symbolic speech that was shielded by the First Amendment. Johnson's case went to the Supreme Court as the conviction was reversed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The court decided that state laws banning the burning of the American flag were unconstitutional, as they infringed on a citizen's right to symbolic speech.

What is "Symbolic Speech" and Why is it Important?

What is "symbolic speech," and why is it important in this case?

Court's Ruling on Symbolic Speech

According to the United States law, symbolic speech is a legal term that can be defined as any action that a person utilizes to express any idea or opinion with no application words alone, which are protected by the U.S. constitution under the freedom of speech provision. Flag waving, wearing protest buttons, sit-ins, marching in a parade, and demonstrations are some examples of symbolic speech.

Court's Decision on Flag-Burning

Firstly, the court ascertained Johnson's action of burning the flag was an expressive conduct that is defended under the First Amendment. As a symbol of national unity, the American flag should be preserved; however, the State criminally could not punish for the flag desecration. The court further stressed that a different Texas statute prohibits breaches of the peace which could be utilized to prevent any other disturbances without necessary punishing the act of flag desecration. In agreement with the court ruling, the Johnson flag burning constitutes as a symbolic speech which is very well protected by the First Amendment, and as an American citizen, Johnson is allowed to exercise his freedom of speech even if some people may find his acts offensive and unacceptable.

Majority's Opinion and Protection of Symbolic Speech

According to Justice William Brennan, the majority of the court was in agreement with Johnson and held that his act of flag burning constitutes as a form of symbolic speech that is a protected expression under the First Amendment. The majority noted that society's outrage is not justification enough for suppressing free speech as the freedom of speech protects any actions that some society may find very unappealing. Although the law punished actions that might arouse anger and rage in others that may include flag burning, the majority noted that the Texas law discriminated upon this viewpoint and it specially exempted from prosecution actions that were respectful of venerated objects such as burying or burning a worn-out flag. The majority concluded that the government could not discriminate in the above manner based mainly upon viewpoint.

Dissenters' Viewpoint

Why do the dissenters disagree with the majority?

Justice Stevens' Argument

Disputing with the majority, Justice Stevens argued that the unique status of the American flag as a symbol of national unity outweighed the majorities’ and Johnson's symbolic speech concerns, and therefore the government could lawfully prohibit the act of flag burning. He also emphasized that the flag symbolized more than national unity but also signified the ideas and thoughts that characterize and identify the society that had chosen that emblem and the special history that has animated its development and power of those ideas. The value of the American flag cannot be equated to anything as it represents the courage, determination, and the gifts of the nature that transformed 13 fledging colonies into a world powerhouse. The dissenters and the majority disagree on whether the symbolism and significance of the American flag outweigh Johnson's freedom of speech.


Facts and Case Summary – Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989) (2017). Retrieved on April, 10 from http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-texas-v-johnson.

Texas v. Johnson (No. 88-155) 491 U.S. 397. (2017). Retrieved on April, 10 from https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/491/397.

Texas v. Johnson. (2017). Retrieved on April, 9 from https://www.oyez.org/cases/1988/88-155.

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