Texas v. Johnson

United States Supreme Court

491 U.S. 397, 109 S.Ct. 2533, 105 L.Ed. 2d. 342 (1989)

 

            After burning an American flag as part of a public protest, Gregory Lee Johnson was convicted of desecrating a flag in violation of Texas law. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, holding that the statute under which Johnson was convicted was unconstitutional as applied to his particular conduct.

 

Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            . . . We must first determine whether Johnson’s burning of the flag constituted expressive conduct, permitting him to invoke the First Amendment in challenging his conviction. . . . If his conduct was expressive, we next decide whether the State’s regulation is related to the suppression of free expression. . . . If the State’s regulation is not related to expression, then the less stringent standard we announced in United States v. O’Brien [1968] for regulations of noncommunicative conduct controls. . . . If it is, then we are outside of O’Brien’s test, and we must ask whether this interest justifies Johnson’s conviction under a more demanding standard. . . . A third possibility is that the State’s asserted interest is simply not implicated on these facts, and in that event the interest drops out of the picture. . . .

 

            The First Amendment literally forbids the abridgement only of “speech,” but we have long recognized that its protection does not end at the spoken or written word. While we have rejected “the view that an apparently limitless variety of conduct can be labeled ‘speech’ whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea,” . . . we have acknowledged that conduct may be “sufficiently imbued with elements of communication to fall within the scope of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” . . .

 

            In deciding whether particular conduct possesses sufficient communicative elements to bring the First Amendment into play, we have asked whether “[a]n intent to convey a particularized message was present, and [whether] the likelihood was great that the message was present, and [whether] the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.” Hence, we have recognized the expressive nature of students’ wearing of black armbands to protest American military involvement in Vietnam, . . . of the wearing of American military uniforms in a dramatic presentation criticizing American involvement in Vietnam, . . . and of picketing about a wide variety of causes. . . .

 

            Especially pertinent to this case are our decisions recognizing the communicative nature of conduct relating to flags. Attaching a peace sign to the flag, . . . saluting the flag, . . . and displaying a red flag, . . . we have held, all may find shelter under the First Amendment. . . . That we have had little difficulty identifying an expressive element in conduct relating to flags should not be surprising. The very purpose of a national flag is to serve as a symbol of our country; it is, one might say, “the one visible manifestation of two hundred years of nationhood.” . . . Pregnant with expressive content, the flag as readily signifies this Nation as does the combination of letters found in “America.”

 

            We have not automatically concluded, however, that any action taken with respect to our flag is expressive. Instead, in characterizing such action for First Amendment purposes, we have considered the context in which it occurred.

 

            The State of Texas conceded for purposes of its oral argument in this case that Johnson’s conduct was expressive conduct. . . . Johnson burned an American flag as part—indeed, as the culmination—of a political demonstration that coincided with the convening of the Republican Party and its renomination of Ronald Reagan for President. The expressive, overtly political nature of this conduct was both intentional and overwhelmingly apparent. . . .

 

            The government generally has a freer hand in restricting expressive conduct than it has in restricting the written or spoken word. . . . It may not, however, proscribe particular conduct because it has expressive elements. . . . It is, in short, not simply the verbal or nonverbal nature of the expression, but the governmental interest at stake, that helps to determine whether a restriction on that expression is valid. . . .

 

            In order to decide whether O’Brien’s test applies here, therefore we must decide whether Texas has asserted an interest in support of Johnson’s conviction that is unrelated to the suppression of expression. If we find that an interest asserted by the State is simply not implicated on the facts before us, we need not ask whether O’Brien’s test applies. . . . The State offers two separate interests to justify this conviction: preventing breaches of the peace, and preserving the flag as a symbol of nationhood and national unity. We hold that the first interest is not implicated on this record and that the second is related to the suppression of expression. . . .

 

            Texas claims that its interest in preventing breaches of the peace justifies Johnson’s conviction for flag desecration. However, no disturbance of the peace actually occurred or threatened to occur because of Johnson’s burning of the flag. Although the State stresses the disruptive behavior of the protestors during their march toward City Hall, . . . it admits that no actual breach of the peace “occurred at the time of the flag burning or in response to the flag burning.” The State’s emphasis on the protestors’ disorderly actions prior to arriving at City Hall is not only somewhat surprising given that no charges were brought on the basis of this conduct, but it also fails to show that a disturbance of the peace was a likely reaction to Johnson’s conduct. The only evidence offered by the State at trial to show the reaction to Johnson’s actions was the testimony of several persons who had been seriously offended by the flag burning.

 

            The State’s position, therefore, amounts to a claim that an audience that takes serious offense at particular expression is necessarily likely to disturb the peace and that the expression may be prohibited on this basis. Our precedents do not countenance such a presumption. On the contrary, they recognize that a principal “function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” . . .

 

            . . . Johnson’s expressive conduct [does not] fall within that small class of “fighting words” that are “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace.” . . . No reasonable onlooker would have regarded Johnson’s generalized expression of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Federal Government as a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs.

 

            We thus conclude that the State’s interest in maintaining order is not implicated on these facts. The State need not worry that our holding will disable it from preserving the peace. We do not suggest that the First Amendment forbids a State to prevent “imminent lawless action.” . . .

 

            The State also asserts an interest in preserving the flag as a symbol of nationhood and national unity. . . . The State, apparently, is concerned that . . . [flag burning] will lead people to believe either that the flag does not stand for nationhood and national unity, but instead reflects other, less positive concepts, or that the concepts reflected in the flag do not in fact exist, that is, we do not enjoy unity as a Nation. These concerns blossom only when a person’s treatment of the flag communicates some message, and thus are related “to the suppression of free expression” within the meaning of O’Brien. We are thus outside of O’Brien’s test altogether.

 

            It remains to consider whether the State’s interest in preserving the flag as a symbol of nationhood and national unity justifies Johnson’s conviction.

 

            . . . Johnson was not . . . prosecuted for the expression of just any idea; he was prosecuted for his expression of dissatisfaction with the policies of this country, expression situated at the core of our First Amendment values. . . .

 

            Moreover, Johnson was prosecuted because he knew that his politically charged expression would cause “serious offense.” If he had burned the flag as a means of disposing of it because it was dirty or torn, he would not have been convicted of flag desecration under this Texas law: federal law designates burning as the preferred means of disposing of a flag “when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display,” . . . and Texas has no quarrel with this means of disposal. The Texas law is thus not aimed at protecting the physical integrity of the flag in all circumstances, but is designed instead to protect it only against impairments that would cause serious offense to others. . . .

 

            Whether Johnson’s treatment of the flag violated Texas law thus depended on the likely communicative impact of his expressive conduct. . . . [T]his restriction on Johnson’s expression is content-based.

 

            . . . Johnson’s political expression was restricted because of the content of the message he conveyed. We must therefore subject the State’s asserted interest in preserving the special symbolic character of the flag to “the most exacting scrutiny.” . . .

 

            If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. . . .

 

            . . . [N]othing in our precedents suggests that a State may foster its own view of the flag by prohibiting expressive conduct relating to it. . . .

 

            There is, moreover, no indication—either in the text of the Constitution or in our cases interpreting it—that a separate judicial category exists for the American flag alone. Indeed, we would not be surprised to learn that the persons who framed our Constitution and wrote the Amendment that we now construe were not known for their reverence for the Union Jack. The First Amendment does not guarantee that other concepts virtually sacred to our Nation as a whole—such as the principle that discrimination on the basis of race is odious and  destructive—will go unquestioned in the marketplace of ideas. . . . We decline, therefore to create for the flag an exception to the joust of principles protected by the First Amendment.

 

            It is not the State’s ends, but its means, to which we object. It cannot be gainsaid that there is a special place reserved for the flag in this Nation, and thus we do not doubt that the Government has a legitimate interest in making efforts to “preserv[e] the national flag as an unalloyed symbol of our country.” . . . Congress has, for example, enacted precatory regulations describing the proper treatment of the flag . . . and we cast no doubt on the legitimacy of its interest in making such recommendations. To say that the Government has an interest in encouraging proper treatment of the flag, however, is not to say that it may criminally punish a person for burning a flag as a means of political protest. . . .

 

            We are tempted to say . . . that the flag’s deservedly cherished place in our community will be strengthened, not weakened, by our holding today. Our decision is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism such as Johnson’s is a sign and source of our strength.

 

            The way to preserve the flag’s special role is not to punish those who feel differently about these matters. It is to persuade them that they are wrong.

 

            . . . [P]recisely because it is our flag that is involved, one’s response to the flag-burners may exploit the uniquely persuasive power of the flag itself. We can imagine no more appropriate response to burning a flag than waving one’s own, no better way to counter a flag-burner’s message than by saluting the flag that burns, no surer means of preserving the dignity even of the flag that burned than by—as one witness here did—according its remains a respectful burial. We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents. . . .

 

            The judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is . . . affirmed.

 

Justice Kennedy, concurring. . . .

 

Chief Justice Rehnquist, with whom Justice White and Justice O’Connor join, dissenting.

 

            In holding this Texas statute unconstitutional, the Court ignores Justice Holmes’ familiar aphorism that “a page of history is worth a volume of logic.” . . . For more than 200 years, the American flag has occupied a unique position as the symbol of our Nation, a uniqueness that justifies a governmental prohibition against flag burning in the way respondent Johnson did here. . . .

 

            Here it may equally well be said that the public burning of the American flag by Johnson was no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and at the same time it had a tendency to incite a breach of the peace. Johnson was free to make any verbal denunciation of the flag that he wished; indeed, he was free to burn the flag in private. He could publicly burn other symbols of the Government or effigies of political leaders. He did lead a march through the streets of Dallas, and conducted a rally in front of the Dallas City Hall. He engaged in a “die-in” to protest nuclear weapons. He shouted out various slogans during the march, including: “Reagan, Mondale which will it be? Either one means World War III”; “Ronald Reagan, killer of the hour, perfect example of US power”; and “red, white and blue, we spit on you, you stand for plunder, you will go under.” . . . For none of these acts was he arrested or prosecuted; it was only when he proceeded to burn publicly an American flag stolen from its rightful owner that he violated the Texas statute. . . .

 

            The Court concludes its opinion with a regrettably patronizing civics lecture, presumably addressed to the Members of both Houses of Congress, the members of the 48 state legislatures that enacted prohibitions against flag burning, and the troops fighting under that flag in Vietnam who objected to its being burned: “The way to preserve the flag’s special role is not to punish those who feel differently about these matters. It is to persuade them that they are wrong.” . . . The Court’s role as the final expositor of the Constitution is well established, but its role as a platonic guardian admonishing those responsible to public opinion as if they were truant school children has no similar place in our system of government. The cry of “no taxation without representation” animated those who revolted against the English Crown to found our Nation—the idea that those who submitted to government should have some say as to what kind of laws would be passed. Surely one of the high purposes of a democratic society is to legislate against conduct that is regarded as evil and profoundly offensive to the majority of people—whether it be murder, embezzlement, pollution, or flag burning.

 

            Our Constitution wisely places limits on powers of legislative majorities to act, but the declaration of such limits by this Court “is, at all times, a question of much delicacy which ought seldom, if ever, to be decided in the affirmative, in a doubtful case.” . . . Uncritical extension of constitutional protection to the burning of the flag risks the frustration of the very purpose for which organized governments are instituted. The Court decides that the American flag is just another symbol, about which not only must opinions pro and con be tolerated, but for which the most minimal public respect may not be enjoined. The government may conscript men into the Armed Forces where they must fight and perhaps die for the flag, but the government may not prohibit the public burning of the banner under which they fight. I would uphold the Texas statute as applied in this case.

 

Justice Stevens, dissenting.

 

            . . . A country’s flag is a symbol of more than “nationhood and national unity.” . . . It also signifies the ideas that characterize the society that has chosen that emblem as well as the special history that has animated the growth and power of those ideas. The fleur-de-lis and the tricolor both symbolized “nationhood and national unity,” but they had vastly different meanings. The message conveyed by some flags—the swastika, for example—may survive long after it has outlived its usefulness as a symbol of regimented unity in a particular nation.

 

            So it is with the American flag. It is more than a proud symbol of the courage, the determination, and the gifts of nature that transformed 13 fledgling Colonies into a world power. It is a symbol of freedom, of equal opportunity, of religious tolerance, and of goodwill for other peoples who share our aspirations. The symbol carries its message to dissidents both at home and abroad who may have no interest at all in our national unity or survival.

 

            The value of the flag as a symbol cannot be measured. Even so, I have no doubt that the interest in preserving that value for the future is both significant and legitimate. Conceivably that value will be enhanced by the Court’s conclusion that our national commitment to free expression is so strong that even the United States as ultimate guarantor of that freedom is without power to prohibit the desecration of its unique symbol. But I am unpersuaded. The creation of a federal right to post bulletin boards and graffiti on the Washington Monument might enlarge the market for free expression, but at a cost I would not pay. . . .

 

            The Court is . . . quite wrong in blandly asserting that respondent “was prosecuted for his expression of dissatisfaction with the policies of this country, expression situated at the core of our First Amendment values.” . . . Respondent was prosecuted because of the method he chose to express his dissatisfaction with those policies. Had he chosen to spray paint—or perhaps convey with a motion picture projector—his message of dissatisfaction on the facade of the Lincoln Memorial, there would be no question about the power of the Government to prohibit his means of expression. The prohibition would be supported by the legitimate interest in preserving the quality of an important national asset. Though the asset at stake in this case is intangible, given its unique value, the same interest supports a prohibition on the desecration of the American flag. . . .