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Ruling on Flag Burning Still Brings Strong Emotions

American flag

American flag

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of a major legal ruling on free speech in the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that burning the American flag … as a form of political protest … is a protected act of free speech under the U.S. Constitution. The vote was five to four. Many Americans opposed the court’s decision at the time, and some still disagree with it today.

The 1989 Supreme Court case on flag burning resulted from the actions of a man named Gregory Johnson. He was a demonstrator at the 1984 National Convention of the Republican Party. The convention delegates met in Dallas, Texas. They nominated Ronald Reagan for a second term as president.

Gregory "Joey" Johnson

Gregory "Joey" Johnson

During a protest against Reagan administration policies, Gregory Johnson set fire to an American flag. He was arrested and charged with violating a Texas law on flag desecration – destroying or damaging a flag in public.

Flag burning was often part of anti-war and anti-government demonstrations during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Gregory Johnson appealed a Texas court’s decision against him. His case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled that flag burning is legally protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The first amendment guarantees freedom of speech.

Elliot Mincberg is a lawyer for a group called People for the American Way. He says the Supreme Court decision expanded 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.”

But 25 years later, the flag burning case still fuels strong emotions, especially among former armed forces members. They see the flag as something representing democracy.

Retired Army Master Sergeant Louis Celli is the legislative director for the American Legion, the largest group of U.S. military veterans.

“The American flag is more than just a piece of cloth. 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.”

Louis Celli hopes to persuade Congress to protect the flag through enactment of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That would require the support of two-third of the Senate and House of Representatives and 75 percent of the 50 states.

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

In 2006, researchers found that 56 percent of Americans supported a constitutional amendment to protect the flag. That is less than the high of 71 percent in a survey released shortly after the Supreme Court ruling in 1989.

Free speech activists like Elliot Mincberg consider the flag burning case settled. They do not see the kind of political force 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.”

But Lou Celli of the American Legion 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 hopes to persuade the next Congress to consider the flag amendment.

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