Thursday, June 20, 2013

June 21: Texas v. Johnson / Flag Burning

On this date in History .... June 21, 1989:

The Supreme Court decides Texas v. Johnson that flag burning was free speech and protected under the first amendment.  Richmond, Indiana native Gregory Lee Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, was part of a demonstration at the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas. When he poured kerosene on the flag and set it ablaze, he was charged with a Texas law of prohibits vandalizing respected objects (desecration of a venerated object).

One witness, Daniel E. Walker, a West Point graduate, received international attention when he collected the burned remains of the flag and buried them according to military protocol in his backyard. Following the incident, Walker received the Army’s highest civilian award and a letter of commendation from U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan.  Walker died in 2009 at the age of 81.

An eyewitness to the event tells this story:
"Just a few feet away from me an American flag  had been set on fire and was being held high by a young man to a combination of boos and cheers of approval. He was tackled to the ground almost immediately and an older guy who looked really out of place with the rest of the crowd took the flag away from him and began stomping on it in an attempt to put out the flames and then carried it off."        

Attorney William Kunstler and Greg Johnson
Johnson appealed his conviction one year in prison and $2000 fine to the Supreme Court. In a controversial 5-4 decision, the Court found his actions protected as free speech. The decision invalidated laws in 48 of the 50 states. Congress has tried to pass a law prohibiting flag burning a number of times but the bill fails to pass the Senate each time. 

Johnson spent his entire life involved in protests and demonstrations, eventually becoming the national spokesman for the Communist Youth Brigade. In 2011, he was arrested in California for protesting in support of a hunger strike by the Pelican State Prison inmates.  

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