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Landmark US Flag Burning Case Marks 25th Anniversary

Landmark US Flag Burning Case Marks 25th Anniversaryi
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.

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Comment Sorting
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 what gives you the right to say my views is unlawful

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