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Flag Burning Cases: Supreme Court Cases on or Relating to Flag Burning

A number of cases have come to the Supreme Court dealing or relating to the burning, defacement, or desecration of the American flag. In some cases, people have burned an American flag in order to protest polices and actions by the government. In other cases, people have done things with an American flag which others insisted was disrespectful. In a few cases, the government has tried to restrict people's ability to communicate messages with symbols rather than words.

United States v. Eichman (1990)
Within months of the Texas v. Johnson decision that burning an American flag is constitutionally protected expression, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, legislatively challenging the Court's ruling and prohibiting the desecration of American flags. For the second time in two years, the Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether...

Texas v. Johnson (1989)
Does the state have the authority to make it a crime to burn an American flag, even as part of a political protest and as a means for expressing a political opinion? Most states have banned flag burning as part of statutes generally outlawing flag desecration. The Supreme Court had to rule on such the Texas law when a man was convicted for...

Smith v. Goguen (1974)
Can the government criminalize misuse of the American flag, acts which treat the flag contemptuously? In the case of Smith v. Goguen, the Supreme Court had to decide whether a Massachusetts teenager could be convicted for wearing a patch of the American flag on the seat of his pants. According to the Court, the Massachusetts law against misusing...

Spence v. Washington (1974)
Should the government be able to prevent people from attaching symbols, words, or pictures to American flags in public? That was the question before the Supreme Court in Spence v. Washington, a case where a college student was prosecuted for publicly displaying an American flag to which he had attached large peace symbols. The Court found that Spence had a constitutional right to use the American flag to communicate his intended message, even if the government disagreed with him.

Schacht v. United States (1970)
Can the government prevent people from using particular symbols or images only when they are used to bring 'disrespect' to some part of the government? This was the question facing the Supreme Court in the case of Schacht v. United States and they justices ruled against the government. According to the Supreme Court, actors could wear military uniforms in theatrical productions even if those productions could be found to 'discredit' the armed forces in some manner.

Street v. New York (1969)
The American flag is important, but is it important enough for the government to have the authority to ban both words and actions which encourage 'contempt' or 'disrespect' for the flag? This is the principle behind most efforts to criminalize burning or desecration of the American flag and it was the question facing the Supreme Court in the case of Street v New York. They struck down the law for its inclusion of "words" in the ban, but dodged the 'action' issue.

Stromberg v. California (1931)
Using words to express opposition to the American government is generally accepted, but what about symbols or emblems? Does the right to free speech include a right to express views and communicate ideas via means other than literal speech? The Supreme Court was asked to decide this in the case of Stromberg v. California and they ruled that use of a flag to communicate ideas was, indeed, covered by the Constitution's protections for free speech.

Halter v. Nebraska (1907)
Contemporary efforts to 'protect' the American flag from 'desecration' focus on burning the flag in political protests, but the earliest such laws focused on use of the flag to sell merchandise commercially. Many states and municipalities passed laws banning 'base' uses of the American flag in commerce. The Supreme Court decided in the case of Halter v. Nebraska that such laws were constitutional; today many remain on the books, though few people seem to realize this.

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