High Court Will Review Flag Burning : Texas Court Threw Out ’84 Conviction as Act of Free Speech

Associated Press

The Supreme Court today agreed to consider reinstating a criminal conviction against a man who burned an American flag at a demonstration during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas.

The court said it will review a ruling that the flag burning was a form of symbolic expression protected by the Constitution.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last April threw out the conviction of Gregory Lee Johnson, who had been sentenced to one year in jail and fined $2,000.

Johnson was arrested on Aug. 22, 1984, while participating in a demonstration against the Reagan Administration and the Republicans.


Political Rally

The protest had culminated with a rally in front of Dallas City Hall that included political chants and the flag burning.

Johnson was convicted by a jury of violating a state law banning the desecration of a venerated object.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said, “Given the context of an organized demonstration, speeches, slogans and the distribution of literature, anyone who observed (Johnson’s) act would have understood the message that (he) intended to convey. The act for which (he) was convicted was clearly ‘speech’ contemplated by the First Amendment.”


The state court said the Texas law against flag desecration is too broad because it seeks to curb expression likely to cause “serious offense.”

Police Officers Offended

Police officers who arrested Johnson said they were seriously offended by the flag burning.

But the state court said that seriously offending someone is not the same as inciting to riot--an activity that permits restraints on free speech.

In other action, the court:

--Set the stage for an important libel law ruling by agreeing to review a $200,000 award won against a Hamilton, Ohio, newspaper.

The court will use an appeal by the Hamilton Journal News to decide, sometime by July, how closely appeals courts must scrutinize jury findings of “actual malice” when a public figure sues for libel.

--Left intact the espionage and theft convictions of a former U.S. intelligence analyst who gave secret satellite photographs to a British magazine.


Morison Appeal Rejected

The justices, without comment, rejected an appeal by Samuel Loring Morison, who is serving a two-year prison sentence for leaking the photos of a Soviet ship to Jane’s Defence Weekly.

--Agreed to hear a Reagan Administration appeal aimed at making it easier for the government to conduct tax-fraud investigations.

The justices said they will use a California case involving the Church of Scientology to settle a dispute over the power of the Internal Revenue Service to obtain and use confidential documents, particularly communications between lawyers and clients.

--Agreed to consider allowing states to give larger retirement benefits to public employees forced to quit work before age 60.