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Flag-amendment proposal inflames passions of notorious flag-burner

Phillip Taylor
First Amendment Center


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The Flag Desecration

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When free-speech advocates scan Supreme Court case law for significant decisions defending expression, they often cite the 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson — in which the justices determined that flag desecration is a form of protected speech — as a high point of First Amendment jurisprudence.

But for Greg "Joey" Johnson, the Mao revolutionary who challenged the Texas state law forbidding the desecration of the U.S. flag, the court's 5-4 decision was politics as usual.

"I was glad we won, but I saw it as a political battle," Johnson told free! "It wasn't that these 'noble justices' interpreted, contemplated and pontificated the Constitution. I really think there was a question of politics having to do with us putting on an appropriate international face."

Ten years after the decision, Johnson says he still believes the court ruled in his favor merely to avoid making the United States look like totalitarian states such as Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini only months earlier had issued a death warrant for The Satanic Verses author Salmon Rushdie.

"I think it's a myth that there's free speech in this country," said Johnson, noting that within days of the court's decision, then-President George Bush and Congress immediately took steps to pass new laws forbidding flag desecration.

At first shocked and then disgusted upon learning about Congress' current effort to pass a flag-protection amendment, Johnson says he has never understood why many Americans don't see the free-speech aspect of flag desecration. He asks why people quickly denounce the act on patriotic grounds without thinking about why some Americans might feel the need to burn the flag to get their views heard.

"What I don't understand is what are they really afraid of when someone burns a flag?" Johnson said. "A lot of these people have a great deal of insecurity about their future. So I see this amendment as a real cynical, a real calculated appeal to emotions."

As the stepson of an Army sergeant stationed in Germany in the 1960s, Johnson grew up in Berlin surrounded by American patriotism. He remembers selling the military newspaper Stars and Stripes on the streets there. But most significantly, he remembers seeing soldiers who had fought in Vietnam returning to the United States via Germany.

"I didn't just wake up one morning and decide to burn a flag," he said. "Hanging out with GIs from Vietnam is what turned me against patriotism, [that,] and listening to Jimi Hendrix."

When Johnson returned to the United States, he joined the Communist Party and organized protests against U.S. intervention in other countries. During his occasional travels outside the United States, Johnson said he discovered that people who burned American symbols, such as the flag, generated a lot of attention.

"In those countries, one of the first things people do is burn the symbol of United States imperialism such as an effigy of Uncle Sam," Johnson said. "They resist whatever way they can. It's something they are trying to tell us. But the powers that be don't want to see that message. They want to insulate people from it."

And that's why Johnson and other protestors burned the U.S. flag.

Johnson remembers that Dallas during the summer of 1984 promised to be the perfect place for a protest on U.S. interventionism. Not only was the Texas city home to numerous international companies, but it was to be the site of the 1984 Republican Convention.

"You have to do something in a dramatic way or else you'll be ignored," Johnson said. "That's the reality of free expression in this country; the means for creating and molding public opinion are highly, highly monopolized. Generally, the exploited and depressed have no means for being heard. So you have to be creative like Abbie Hoffman said."

As hundreds of protestors gathered on Aug. 22, 1984, in front of Dallas City Hall, someone other than Johnson actually set fire to the flag. Although local authorities arrested 95 people that day, they focused on Johnson because he organized the protests.

"But I am the flag-burner," Johnson said. "I won't let them take that away from me."

In a widely publicized trial, a Texas jury found Johnson guilty and gave him the maximum penalty under the law — a $2,000 fine and a one-year jail sentence. A state court of appeals affirmed the trial court's decision.

But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — the state's highest criminal court — reversed the decision, finding that state punishment of Johnson for burning the flag would violate the First Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 21, 1989, affirmed the Texas court's decision.

"We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents," Justice William Brennan wrote for the majority.

Up until a few years ago, Johnson often spoke out against attempts to pass flag-protection laws or amendments. But recently he has focused his efforts on combating police brutality and fighting for minority rights in Los Angeles.

Activist Edward Hasbrouck met Johnson soon after the Dallas protest and helped secure monetary and legal support from people ranging from filmmaker Oliver Stone to artist Jasper Johns. Hasbrouck says his friend has been painted unfairly as an anarchist.

"Joey is a very thoughtful person with very clear and articulate ideas," Hasbrouck told free! "He sees this amendment as a threat, one more excuse for government to silence dissent.

"I've encouraged him to put some time back into it, but he wasn't that interested anymore," Hasbrouck said. "He doesn't want to spend his entire life identified only as a flag-burner."

But Johnson says he wants Americans to understand that free speech is only available to those who can afford to speak. Flag-burning, he says, enables some messages to be heard.

Although he claims he personally holds no strong feelings for the flag, Johnson says many Americans have mixed feelings about what the flag symbolizes. On one hand, it evokes ideas they cherish, he says, but, on the other hand, it represents a source of alienation and estrangement from the system.

"The fact is we live in a country that 200 years after its inception still has tremendous problems with racism," Johnson said. "Black people are still being lynched with pickup trucks. The black man only makes up 7 percent of the population but makes up 60 percent of the prison population.

"There are many people who still have some reverence or loyalties or illusions about the system, but they are also troubled," he said. "And they don't want the government telling them what they can or can't do."

With the flag amendment, lawmakers are attempting to attach one permissible meaning to the flag along with a threat of punishment if respect isn't paid to that one meaning, Johnson says.

That sounds too much like Germany right before World War II, according to Johnson.

"One of the first acts taken by the Nazis was to outlaw desecration of national symbols — to make it a crime to speak against the swastika, let alone burn it," Johnson said. "It's not a big leap to say, 'You can't burn the flag' to saying 'You can't speak against the flag.'"