News / USA

Landmark US Flag Burning Case Marks 25th Anniversary

Landmark US Flag Burning Case Marks 25th Anniversaryi
X
Jim Malone
June 20, 2014 4:30 PM
Saturday, June 21, marks the 25th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision on free speech. By a vote of five to four, the high court ruled that burning the American flag as a form of political protest was a protected act of free speech under the U.S. Constitution. As VOA's Jim Malone reports, the decision was controversial at the time and, for some, remains so today.
— Saturday, June 21, marks the 25th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision on free speech.  

By a vote of five to four, the high court ruled that burning the American flag as a form of political protest was a protected act of free speech under the U.S. Constitution. The decision was controversial at the time and for some remains so today.  

The 1989 Supreme Court case on flag burning was set in motion by the actions of Gregory Johnson.  He was among a group of demonstrators at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, where President Ronald Reagan was nominated for a second term.

During a protest denouncing Reagan administration policies, Johnson set fire to an American flag. He was arrested and charged with violating a Texas law on flag desecration. Flag burning was often part of anti-war and anti-government demonstrations during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Johnson appealed his conviction and the case went to the Supreme Court. In 1989, by a five to four vote, the high court ruled flag burning is legally protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees Americans' freedom of speech.

The Johnson decision was hailed as a landmark case expanding the rights of free speech.

“I do think it says a lot positive about American ideals to be able to say, as the court did and as the people have effectively agreed, that you can even take the symbol of our country and burn it and still not be prosecuted for that,” said attorney Elliot Mincberg of People for the American Way.

However, 25 years later, the flag-burning case still evokes strong emotions, especially among military veterans who see the American flag as a vital symbol of democracy.

“The American flag is more than just a piece of cloth," said retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, the largest veterans group in the United States. "It is representative of the sacrifices of the American soldiers. It is representative of the triumphs and also of the struggles of the American people over the course of over 200 years.”

Celli hopes to convince Congress to protect the flag through enactment of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives and three-quarters of the 50 U.S. states.  

“It is not just the veterans that would be voting on this," he said. "It is the American people and again, overwhelmingly, we find that the American people would support such an amendment.”

A 2006 public opinion poll found 56 percent of those surveyed supported a constitutional amendment to protect the flag, less than the high of 71 percent in a poll shortly after the Supreme Court ruling in 1989.

Free speech advocates like Elliot Mincberg consider the flag-burning case settled law and do not see the kind of political momentum now that would lead to a constitutional amendment. 

“The American Constitution protects the right of all citizens to disagree, to peacefully protest, even some of the more important symbols of our republic, and that protection is what provides the freedom that Americans so cherish, here and around the world,” Mincberg said.

But the American Legion's Celli says his group will continue to fight.

“To make sure that the people now have the choice to vote on a constitutional change that will protect the symbol of the United States of America,” he said.

Celli hopes to convince the next Congress, beginning in 2015, to consider the flag amendment.  

In the years following the Supreme Court ruling, several attempts to pass an amendment protecting the flag from desecration failed.  

The most recent attempt came in 2006 when the measure was passed by the House, but defeated in the Senate by a single vote.

You May Like

Lebanese Media Unite to Support Palestinians in Gaza

Joint newscast billed as Arab world’s first unified news bulletin in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip More

Photogallery Australian PM Alleges ‘Coverup’ at MH17 Crash Site

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to Malaysia denies plane's black boxes were opened before they were handed over to Malaysian officials More

Despite Advances in AIDS Treatment, Stigma Lingers

Leading immunologist tells VOA that stigma is often what prevents those infected with disease from seeking treatment More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: John from: Rhode Island
June 25, 2014 9:01 PM
Flag Burning is a form of ''free speach'' not a ''Hate Crime'' But saying the ''N'' word is a ''Federal Crime'' but flag burning is A free of speech.issue.Or saying Anti-semitic words Is offensive. Yet the very ones who burn the flag are the ones who fall under its protection.


by: maithe from: Paris, France
June 21, 2014 6:04 AM
Totally shameful !
Nothing to do with "free speech"
Wake up America !


by: pete from: usa
June 21, 2014 12:06 AM
“The American flag is more than just a piece of cloth," said retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant Louis Celli...excuse me but to me it is just a piece of cloth...freedom is in the heart not a piece of cloth and I also am retired U.S. Army


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
June 20, 2014 8:15 PM
National flags may represent patriotism of soldiers but also represent their brutality to enemies. It makes no sense to pay too much worth to a kind of cloth.


by: Mark from: Virginia
June 20, 2014 7:43 PM
It is desecration of a National symbol, the flag of the United States of America. It should be a protected symbol, inviolate. Free Speech can take a back seat to this one, what about Respect? What about Honor? Sacrifice?
How much blood, American blood was spilled defending that piece of cloth? How much American blood was soaked into the ground to protect this country, to protect the Rights of all Americans, to protect that flag, a symbol of this Nation?
What do you see when you look upon the Flag of the United States of America? I see the representation of a great country, flawed at times (then again, what country isn't), I see the sacrifices that were made on our behalf by voices that are stilled by death defending our freedoms. I see Hope, I see Pride, I see the vision of what our Founding Fathers had in mind.
I am a Veteran, I fought for this country during Desert Storm, I fought for that scrap of cloth we call a Flag, I bled for it, I lost buddies who died protecting all that it stands for. My father fought for this country, he was wounded in the Korean Conflict. To burn that flag in protest, in my opinion, is and always will be a slap in the face of all Americans who fought and bled and died for this great Land.
When an American flag is worn out and no longer serviceable it is burned, yes, but it is first folded properly, with honor and respect, and then burned with respect and dignity. It is meant to be a solemn occasion, not one steeped in angry protest.

For the Supreme Court, 25 years ago, to have voted to protect an individual's right to Free Speech through the desecration and dishonoring of the Flag of the United States of America only proves that even Justices of this land's highest Court lacked respect and honor for the country they served.

It just sickens me to see a treasured symbol of this Nation to be dishonored in such a way.

In Response

by: Mark from: Virginia
June 21, 2014 8:23 PM
To Pete from usa...there was nothing in my commentary that said it was unlawful. Disrespectful, dishonorable, yes, nothing that said unlawful. I stated that it SHOULD be protected under the law from such desecration, not that it should be unlawful to do so. The Supreme Court ruled that it is not unlawful, and I do not agree with the Supreme Court ruling, but I never said it is unlawful.
My opinions, yes. And they do count, just as your opinion counts, otherwise we would not deign to express them if we did not think they did not count.

In Response

by: pete from: usa
June 21, 2014 12:02 AM
every thing you say is your opinion but not mine and yours doesn't count any more than mine..so what gives you the right to say my views is unlawful

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid