On June 21, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson that burning the American flag as a form of political protest is protected by the First Amendment. Texas v. Johnson centered on a radical demonstrator, Gregory Lee Johnson, who chose a particularly dramatic means of expressing his criticism of Republican policies during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas: He burned the American flag. Within a half hour, police had arrested Johnson for violating a Texas statute barring violation of venerated objects. In Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled in Johnson’s favor, finding that his controversial act qualified as expressive conduct protected under the First Amendment and that the Texas statute was thereby unconstitutional. Justice William Brennan wrote the majority opinion for the Court.
Texas v. Johnson provoked immediate public controversy. Only a few months after the Court passed down the decision, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act of 1989, which attempted to overrule the case by legislation. The next year, in United States v. Eichman (for which Brennan also wrote the majority opinion), the Court declared that this federal law, like the statute at issue in Texas v. Johnson, violated the First Amendment. Subsequently, Congress has made several attempts to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag desecration, one of which failed in the Senate by one vote in 2006.
Read our complete coverage of Texas v. Johnson, including analysis by scholar Lisa Paddock.