Texas v. Johnson (1989)

During the 1984 Republican National Convention, Gregory Lee Johnson protested political and corporate policies by burning an American flag outside Dallas City Hall. He was convicted under a Texas law that prohibits the desecration of respected objects. The Supreme Court ruled that a deliberately expressive nonverbal act can be defined as speech; therefore, if it does not disturb the peace, it is protected by the First Amendment. These words are from the majority opinion written by William Brennan. The the full text here.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. venerate
    regard with feelings of respect and reverence
    The only criminal offense with which he was charged was the desecration of a venerated object in violation of Tex.Penal Code Ann. § 42.09(a)(3) (1989).
  2. fiat
    a legally binding command or decision
    ...a government cannot mandate by fiat a feeling of unity in its citizens.
  3. purport
    propose or intend
    Therefore, that very same government cannot carve out a symbol of unity and prescribe a set of approved messages to be associated with that symbol when it cannot mandate the status or feeling the symbol purports to represent.
  4. suppression
    forceful prevention; putting down by power or authority
    If his conduct was expressive, we next decide whether the State's regulation is related to the suppression of free expression.
  5. imbue
    spread or diffuse through
    ...we have acknowledged that conduct may be "sufficiently imbued with elements of communication to fall within the scope of the First and Fourteenth Amendments," Spence, supra, at 409.
  6. convey
    serve as a means for expressing something
    In deciding whether particular conduct possesses sufficient communicative elements to bring the First Amendment into play, we have asked whether an intent to convey a particularized message was present, and whether the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.
  7. expressive
    characterized by communicating beliefs or opinions
    Hence, we have recognized the expressive nature of students' wearing of black armbands to protest American military involvement in Vietnam, Tinker v. Des Moines; of a sit-in by blacks in a "whites only" area to protest segregation, Brown v. Louisiana; of the wearing of American military uniforms in a dramatic presentation criticizing American involvement in Vietnam, Schacht v. United States; and of picketing about a wide variety of causes
  8. communicative
    able or tending to transmit a message
    Especially pertinent to this case are our decisions recognizing the communicative nature of conduct relating to flags.
  9. manifestation
    an appearance in bodily form
    The very purpose of a national flag is to serve as a symbol of our country; it is, one might say, "the one visible manifestation of two hundred years of nationhood."
  10. symbolism
    the practice of investing things with arbitrary meaning
    Symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas. The use of an emblem or flag to symbolize some system, idea, institution, or personality, is a shortcut from mind to mind.
  11. incursion
    an attack that penetrates into enemy territory
    In Spence, for example, we emphasized that Spence's taping of a peace sign to his flag was "roughly simultaneous with and concededly triggered by the Cambodian incursion and the Kent State tragedy."
  12. concession
    the act of yielding
    The State of Washington had conceded, in fact, that Spence's conduct was a form of communication, and we stated that "the State's concession is inevitable on this record."
  13. overt
    open and observable; not secret or hidden
    The expressive, overtly political nature of this conduct was both intentional and overwhelmingly apparent.
  14. proscribe
    command against
    It may not, however, proscribe particular conduct because it has expressive elements.
  15. conduct
    the way a person behaves toward other people
    Thus, although we have recognized that, where "speech" and "nonspeech" elements are combined in the same course of conduct, a sufficiently important governmental interest in regulating the nonspeech element can justify incidental limitations on First Amendment freedoms
  16. countenance
    consent to, give permission
    Our precedents do not countenance such a presumption.
  17. dispute
    a disagreement or argument about something important
    On the contrary, they recognize that a principal function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.
  18. incite
    provoke or stir up
    Thus, we have not permitted the government to assume that every expression of a provocative idea will incite a riot, but have instead required careful consideration of the actual circumstances surrounding such expression, asking whether the expression "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."
  19. breach
    a failure to perform some promised act or obligation
    And, in fact, Texas already has a statute specifically prohibiting breaches of the peace, which tends to confirm that Texas need not punish this flag desecration in order to keep the peace.
  20. desecration
    blasphemous behavior
    If he had burned the flag as a means of disposing of it because it was dirty or torn, he would not have been convicted of flag desecration under this Texas law: federal law designates burning as the preferred means of disposing of a flag "when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display," and Texas has no quarrel with this means of disposal.
  21. integrity
    an undivided or unbroken completeness with nothing wanting
    The Texas law is thus not aimed at protecting the physical integrity of the flag in all circumstances, but is designed instead to protect it only against impairments that would cause serious offense to others.
  22. odium
    hate coupled with disgust
    ...the display of any sign within 500 feet of a foreign embassy if that sign tends to bring that foreign government into "public odium" or "public disrepute."
  23. unity
    an undivided or unbroken completeness with nothing wanting
    According to Texas, if one physically treats the flag in a way that would tend to cast doubt on either the idea that nationhood and national unity are the flag's referents or that national unity actually exists, the message conveyed thereby is a harmful one, and therefore may be prohibited.
  24. principle
    a basic truth or law or assumption
    If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.
  25. contrary
    very opposed in nature or character or purpose
    ...the constitutionally guaranteed "freedom to be intellectually...diverse or even contrary," and the "right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order," encompass the freedom to express publicly one's opinions about our flag, including those opinions which are defiant or contemptuous.
  26. evince
    give expression to
    Nor may the government, we have held, compel conduct that would evince respect for the flag.
  27. proviso
    a stipulated condition
    This proviso, we held, which leaves Americans free to praise the war in Vietnam but can send persons like Schacht to prison for opposing it, cannot survive in a country which has the First Amendment.
  28. defensible
    capable of being justified or protected
    To conclude that the government may permit designated symbols to be used to communicate only a limited set of messages would be to enter territory having no discernible or defensible boundaries.
  29. gainsay
    take exception to
    It cannot be gainsaid that there is a special place reserved for the flag in this Nation, and thus we do not doubt that the government has a legitimate interest in making efforts to "preserv[e] the national flag as an unalloyed symbol of our country."
  30. resilience
    an occurrence of rebounding or springing back
    Indeed, one of the proudest images of our flag, the one immortalized in our own national anthem, is of the bombardment it survived at Fort McHenry. It is the Nation's resilience, not its rigidity, that Texas sees reflected in the flag—and it is that resilience that we reassert today.
  31. apprehend
    anticipate with dread or anxiety
    To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion.
  32. imminent
    close in time; about to occur
    To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion.
  33. dignity
    the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect
    We can imagine no more appropriate response to burning a flag than waving one's own, no better way to counter a flag burner's message than by saluting the flag that burns, no surer means of preserving the dignity even of the flag that burned than by—as one witness here did—according its remains a respectful burial.
  34. consecrate
    render holy by means of religious rites
    We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.
  35. emblem
    a visible symbol representing an abstract idea
    We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.
Created on February 23, 2017 (updated September 11, 2019)

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