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Texas V Johnson

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Texas v Johson

The first amendment grants the citizens of the United States the right to speak freely, without legal persecution. Over the past 200 years since this amendment was enacted there have been hundreds of judicial cases devoted to interpreting and refining this law. One such case, reviewed by the United States' supreme court in 1988, was Texas v Johnson. The case involved Johnson's conviction of desecrating a venerated object (a Texas Statute) by burning a U.S. flag (Texas V Johnson(1989)). The importance of this case rests not only in the legality of flag burning, but also in the definition of speech. This was the primary concern of the supreme court when reviewing Texas v Johnson. Does the first amendment only pertain to spoken and written words, or can it be construed to protect other forms of expression?

During the 1984 Republican National Convention, held in Dallas, Texas, Gregory Johnson was one of approximately 100 protestors, with the stated purpose of protesting the Reagan administration as well as some of the local Dallas based corporations. The group of protesters worked their way to the City Hall, where Gregory Johnson doused an American flag in kerosene and ignited it, while protesters chanted "America, the red, white and blue, we spit on you." There was no violence, and no bystanders suffered any injury, but many were "seriously offended." Johnson was then arrested, and convicted of desecrating a venerated object, a section of the Texas Penal Code. He was sentenced to one year in prison, and fined $2,000 (Herbeck, Tedford).

Upon appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Johnson's conviction. The court's decision was founded on the grounds that Johnson's act was expressive conduct, and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The court also concluded that the State could not criminally sanction flag desecration in order to preserve national unity, nor could the statute be justified as a means of preserving peace, for it was not drawn narrowly enough to simply outlaw flag burnings that would result in a serious disturbance. The court also stressed that the state had another statute prohibiting breaches of peace, which could be used to prevent disturbances, and was not specific to punishing flag desecration. The state then appealed to the Supreme Court to review the case, and Certiorari was granted in 1988 (Texas V Johnson(1989)).

The main question the Supreme Court had to address was whether the desecration of an American flag a form of free speech, and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Justice Brennan, who issued the Court's majority decision, stressed that the Court had recognized over the years that the First Amendment is not limited to spoken or written words, and that the desecration of a Flag is indeed a form of political expression

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