“Red, white and blue, we spit on you.” The case of <i>Texas v. Johnson</i>, the issue of free speech and the “cult of the flag”
On August 22nd, 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag in protest to the nomination of Ronald Reagan and the policies of the Republican Party during the 1980s. Johnson was later arrested by Dallas Police and charged for violating Texas Penal Code 42.09, which prohibited the desecration of a venerated object. During his trial, Johnson claimed he was expressing his first amendment right of free speech and that the Texas law was designed to suppress that expression. The prosecution claimed that Johnson's actions could have caused a breach of the peace and the Texas law was written to protect the public, as well as preserve a symbol of American national unity.
This thesis will first look at the history of the American flag and attempts to create a ‘cult of the flag’ and protect it from any harm against rising immigration during the last half of the 19th century. The events leading up to the burning will be examined along with Johnson's challenge to the law and the path the case took through the appellate courts. The thesis will also analyze the nearly one hundred years of case precedent that was used to help decide Texas v. Johnson (1989). The justices of the Supreme Court who made the final decision in 1989 will also be studied and how they balanced the first amendment right of free speech against burning the American flag and whether such action posed a danger toward the unity of the United States. Finally, public reaction toward the decision will be explored and show that while the flag was very popular, individual rights won out over forced patriotism and the ‘cult of the flag’.