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

US Border Patrol Union Accused of Taking Sides on Immigration

Report alleges agents leaking info to immigration opponents, appearing at their private events; Center for Immigration Studies director defends agents' actions More

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Reporting from Somali capital for past decade, Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal has been working at one of Mogadishu's leading radio stations covering parliament More

Video Rights Monitor: Hate Groups' Use of Internet to Inflame, Recruit Growing

Wiesenthal Center's Abraham Cooper says extremists have become skilled at celebrating violence, ideology on Web 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.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs