In the Supreme Court case Texas vs. Johnson, Gregory Lee Johnson’s First Amendment Rights were challenged. During a political protest of the Reagan administration, Johnson burned an American flag as a form of protest. In response to this reaction, he was charged with flag burning and flag desecration of a venerated object. The case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled with a 5-4 vote that Johnson’s flag burning was a constitutional act that was protected under the First Amendment. In the case of Texas vs. Johnson, the specific clause of the First Amendment that was being challenged was Johnson’s free speech rights and whether an action such as flag burning was protected under free speech.
There were several issues the Supreme Court had to address in order to make a decision. The first issue was whether the First Amendment protected acts that did not involve verbal communication such as flag burning. The second issue was whether the act of flag burning could be considered a form of self-expression. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment, although its text uses the word “speech,” does not end at only the spoken or written words. Therefore, actions that are used for self-expression are also included under the First Amendment. For the second issue, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s act of flag burning could be considered an act of self-expression if there was, “an intent to convey a particularized message” and “whether the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.” It was clear that Johnson was burning the flag for the purpose of conveying the message that he was protesting the actions of the Reagan administration so the Supreme Court decided that it was a form of self-expression.
My stance on the Supreme Court case of Texas vs. Johnson, is the same as the majority’s opinion. I side with the majority because of the reasons already stated and aforementioned by the Supreme Court. Johnson’s act of flag burning was protected by his First Amendment rights and his ability of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech includes freedom of expression; that is the ability to express your opinions through means other than the spoken word. Johnson’s flag burning qualified as a form of freedom of expression because of two elements: the message it was attempting to convey and how clearly that said message was conveyed. The flag burning was clear in what it was trying to achieve; Johnson was expressing his discontent with the current Reagan administration and burning a symbol of America in order to express that discontent. This action is “sufficiently imbued with elements of communication” and it is within what the Supreme Court has defined as “speech” through their past cases. The action of flag burning was also very clear in conveying that said message. Burning the American flag in front of the Texas City Hall during a protest conveys a very clear cut message that Johnson was discontent with the government. The action of flag burning itself also did not violate any other rights. Johnson did not infringe upon anyone else’s rights nor did he harm anyone in the process of his flag burning. The flag burning was a form of self-expression that should be protected under the First Amendment.
The main argument against my opinion is that that the American flag is more than just an object, the American flag is symbolic in nature and is therefore subject to a higher standard of review than other objects. The American Flag represents over 200 years of history including the American Revolution and the banner that served to unify the original Thirteen Colonies. In this situation, burning the American Flag cannot just be considered a form of self-expression. Flag burning would be considered the desecration of a venerated object and inappropriate conduct that should be punished accordingly. However, I do not believe this to be the case. It is true that the American Flag carries with it immense weight as one of the symbols of America even more so than some of the other American symbols such as an eagle or an olive branch. However, it is because of the very fact that the American Flag carries such weight that makes Johnson’s action such a powerful freedom of expression. The flag burning was the destruction of one of America’s most sacred symbols; it is only natural that that action would send a powerful message across. Johnson’s message could not be conveyed in any other manner and still have the same amount of power or impact; Johnson’s action of flag burning very easily satisfies the two elements that were stated earlier that make it a form of expression. The weight from the American flag made it extremely easy for Johnson to convey his message of discontent of the government across and it also made it very clear cut what he message was through the flag burning.
An extension of the argument that the flag is symbolic in nature is that burning the flag desecrates not only the flag itself, but also everything that the flag stands for. Johnson’s Flag burning can also serve to convey the message that the flag is not the sacred symbol that America regards it as; that the flag is just another object that can be haphazardly burned if one chose to. The flag burning weakens its worth and diminishes its value as America’s symbol. However, I believe that the opposite holds truer. If the American Flag and what it stood for was weakened, then the general public and the government authorities would not care that there was a flag burning. It is the very fact that the action of a flag burning resulted in a case going all the way up to the Supreme Court that proves that the flag is a very strong symbol. The flag burning not only proved that the flag is a powerful symbol, but it also reinforced and strengthened the people’s viewpoint on the flag and flag burning. A simple action such as freedom of expression through a flag burning is not sufficient enough to tarnish the symbol of the flag; it serves to strengthen the symbol of the flag. If Johnson did not see the flag as a powerful symbol he would not have chosen it to be the object to burn.
Johnson’s actions were all in accordance to the Constitution and protected under freedom of speech in his First Amendment Right. I believe that flag burning should be Constitutional as long as it meets the two criteria that: the flag burning was done with the purpose of conveying a message, not just destroying properly or burning a flag for no reason, and that the message being conveyed through the flag burning is very clear cut. By burning a flag in front of the Texas City Hall during a government protest, Johnson’s message was very clear. It was also clearly conveyed because the flag is a very powerful symbol of America. By enacting a flag burning, Johnson reinforced the American peoples’ viewpoint that the flag is a very sacred symbol of America. This powerful symbol translated into a very powerful message that Johnson successfully conveyed.