A Look at History: Texas v. Johnson

A Look at History: Texas v. Johnson

Texas v. Johnson is a case that involves both expressive conduct and a beloved American symbol. This is a case that resulted in controversy, one that persists to this day. Gregory Lee Johnson, the defendant, received a conviction due to his act of flag burning. Representing Johnson were attorneys William Kunstler and David Cole.


Gregory Lee Johnson was part of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. The incident took place in Dallas Texas, during the 1984 Republican National Convention. Johnson was a participant in a political demonstration. The demonstrators involved were protesting about the many Reagan Administration policies. Also targeted by the protests were certain Dallas-based companies. They marched through the streets, chanted and held their signs right outside company offices.

Gregory Lee Johnson (right) and William Kunstler (left) || Photo Source: wikipedia.org.wiki/Texas_v._Johnson

At some point, an American flag found its way to Gregory Lee Johnson. As they reached Dallas City Hall, he poured kerosene on said flag, which he then set on fire. The stunt hurt no one, although the witnesses took great offense. Because of his actions, Johnson was charged with the violation of Texas laws that prohibit the vandalizing of cherished objects. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals saw his case. The court overturned the conviction under the belief that it was under the protection of the First Amendment.

The Decision

The 5-4 decision of the court proved controversial. William J. Brennan delivered the majority opinion. Joining him were Justices Blackmun, Marshall, Kennedy and Scalia. Besides that, Kennedy wrote a concurrence as well. The question of whether non-verbal acts were under the protection of the First Amendment came up. If that were the case, Johnson may invoke the First Amendment in challenging the conviction.

The decision invalidated laws in forty-eight of fifty states. Even two decades after, the issue continues to be controversial. Majority of American citizens have been discovered via a recent poll to still support banning flag-burning. Later on, the 1989 Flag Protection Act was passed by Congress, making the desecration of the flag a federal crime.

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