PA205: Introduction to Legal Analysis and Writing Unit 1 Case Study
In 1984, the Republican Party met in Dallas, Texas for their national convention. President Ronald Reagan, seeking a second term in office, was to be officially named the Republican Party’s candidate for President.
During the convention, opponents of Reagan’s policies organized a political protest in Dallas, which attracted over 100 protestors. Among the protestors was Gregory Lee Johnson.
As the demonstrators marched through the streets chanting slogans, another protester handed Gregory Johnson an American flag that had been taken from a flagpole at one of their protest locations.
Upon reaching Dallas City Hall, Johnson doused the flag with kerosene and set it ablaze. Johnson and his fellow demonstrators circled the burning flag and shouted anti-American slogans.
No one was injured or threatened with injury by Johnson’s act, but many who witnessed it were deeply offended. Dallas police officers arrested Johnson and charged him with violating section 42.09(a)(3) of the Texas Penal Code, which prohibited the “desecration of a venerable object.” Johnson pleaded not guilty in Dallas County Criminal Court, and after a trial was found guilty of violating the statute.
He was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $2,000. State v. Johnson, No. CCR 84-46013-J (Crim. Ct. No. 7, Dallas Cnty. Tex. Dec. 13, 1984). Johnson appealed his case to the Texas Court of Appeals, Fifth District, claiming that the statute under which he was convicted was unconstitutional.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with Johnson and affirmed his conviction. Johnson v. State, 706 S.W.2d 120 (Tex. App. – Dallas 1986). Johnson then appealed his case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, this highest court in the state of Texas.
The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, holding that Johnson’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution was violated by the statute.
States cannot pass laws that take away freedoms that are promised under the United States Constitution, and in passing section 42.09(a)(3), the state had deprived Johnson of his constitutional right to express his views about the government. Johnson v. State, 755 S.W.2d 92 (Tex. Crim. App. 1988).
Now it was the State of Texas’ turn to appeal. The state petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear the case, and the Court granted the request. After hearing oral arguments and reading the parties’ appellate briefs, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, affirmed the decision of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989). The Supreme Court held that Johnson’s burning of the flag was expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, the state could not criminalize flag desecration in order to preserve the flag as a symbol of national unity.
It also held that the statute did not meet the State’s goal of preventing breaches of the peace, because there was another Texas statute that prohibited all breaches of the peace, not just those associated with flag desecration. The Court ruled that the Texas statute was inconsistent with the First Amendment, and therefore the Court struck down the statute. Id.