Texas v. Johnson (1989)

Brief Summary: Texas v. Johnson (1989)

Issue: Whether the desecration of an American flag as a means of political protest is protected speech under the First Amendment.

Rule: The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits laws abridging the freedom of speech.

Application: In this case, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag as an act of political protest. Texas law prohibited desecration of a venerated object, including the American flag, if such action were likely to incite anger or offense. The application of this law to Johnson’s action was challenged as a violation of his freedom of speech.

Conclusion: The Supreme Court held that Johnson’s burning of the flag constituted expressive conduct, which has the same protection as spoken words under the First Amendment. The government could not prohibit such speech on the basis of its content. Thus, the Texas statute was found to be unconstitutional, and Johnson’s conviction was overturned.

Detailed IRAC Outline:

I. Issue

The central legal issue in Texas v. Johnson was whether the State of Texas’s conviction of Gregory Lee Johnson for flag desecration violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

II. Rule

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution is the governing legal standard, particularly its provision that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” This amendment applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s incorporation doctrine. The Supreme Court has interpreted the freedom of speech to extend to expressive conduct as well as words.

III. Application

A. Facts

  1. Gregory Lee Johnson participated in a political protest during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas.
  2. At the protest, Johnson burned an American flag as a symbol of opposition to Reagan administration policies.
  3. Johnson was tried and convicted under a Texas law that prohibited desecration of revered objects, including the American flag, where such act was likely to incite anger or offense.

B. Lower Courts

  1. Johnson was convicted in the trial court and sentenced to one year in prison and fined $2,000.
  2. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, holding that the law was unconstitutional as applied to Johnson.

C. Supreme Court Analysis

  1. Majority Opinion by Justice Brennan
    • The Court first determined that Johnson’s flag burning was expressive conduct intended to convey a specific message.
    • The expressive conduct was within the scope of the First Amendment.
    • Under the O’Brien test, a restriction on symbolic speech must be unrelated to the suppression of the message, and the restriction must advance an important or substantial government interest.
    • The Court found that Texas’s interest in preserving the flag as a symbol of national unity was related to suppressing the message Johnson was expressing.
    • Additionally, the government could not prosecute individuals simply because their expression might offend others.
    • The Texas statute was thus deemed unconstitutional content-based regulation of speech.
  2. Dissenting Opinions
    • Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Stevens argued that the flag’s unique status as a symbol of national unity justified the restriction on its desecration.
    • They asserted that the government had a legitimate interest in preserving the flag’s symbolic value that outweighed Johnson’s First Amendment rights.

IV. Conclusion

The Supreme Court concluded that the State of Texas’s law, as applied to Johnson’s actions, was unconstitutional. Johnson’s burning of the flag in protest was protected expressive conduct under the First Amendment. The decision invalidated the Texas statute and affirmed that the government cannot prohibit expression merely because it is offensive. Johnson’s conviction was overturned, and the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was affirmed.

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