Local governments never seem to learn that flag burning is protected speech

It has long been established by the US Supreme Court that burning of the American flag is constitutionally protected speech. And yet, that act seems to arouse such anger that the people who do so are often arrested and charged. Then when they sue the city, the city is forced to pay them damages. In Cleveland, this pattern was repeated when police arrested Joey Johnson for burning the flag during protests at the 2016 Republican convention. He sued and today the city has agreed to settle the suit and pay him $225,000.

As is often the case, the authorities cook up some reason other than flag burning to justify their arrest.

A rush of people descended on a circle formed by members of the Revolutionary Communist Party after Johnson, a member, set the flag on fire.

An officer doused the blaze with a small fire extinguisher.

Police Chief Calvin Williams said at the time that officers intervened because Johnson lit himself on fire. Johnson and his attorneys, however, said that statement was false, and posted video footage they said contradict the city’s statement.

Here is video of what happened.

You would think that the city would have more sense since it was this same Johnson’s earlier arrest for the same offense in 1984 that led the Supreme Court to rule in 1989 that his act was protected speech.

That was not the only harassment arrest that day of protestors and all the charges were thrown out.

Cleveland previously settled a lawsuit with Steven Fridley, another protester arrested during the flag burning, for $50,000.

While prosecutors dropped Johnson’s charge, a Cleveland Municipal Court judge made his feelings known about the protesters’ arrests that day.

Judge Charles Patton, in dismissing the charges against 12 protesters in October 2017, wrote that the defendants charged were engaging in constitutionally protected speech at the time of the incident. He rejected arguments from city prosecutors who said the charges stemmed from failing to disperse once the flag burning ended.

The veneration for the flag in the US is really something strange to behold, really a fetish. And also weirdly inconsistent because you find the flag printed on all manner of items like clothes and disposable products that are torn, dirtied, burned, or thrown away and nobody seems to care a whit. So it is obviously in the context of a protest that authorities intervene, which makes such arrests clearly acts against political speech.


  1. mastmaker says

    I have long held (and advocated) the view that flags, national anthems and such symbols are rotting corpses of Monarchic symbolism and shouldn’t have any place in a modern democracy.

  2. seachange says

    I freely admit I put the flag up for the elementary school I went to. This stopped when the flag got stolen.

    In order to get this privilege, I had to demonstrate to the principal and the janitor I knew the protocol for flag-handling and could fold it properly.

    It was hard to teach the process to other kids my age who wanted to help that the flag should be treated a certain way. That flag got dropped and mishung a lot, even though I did correct everything in the end. There’s a suprising amount of wrong ways to do something which made third-grade me understand teaching better, that’s for sure.

    Treating a flag “with respect” has to be something people learn, and it isn’t natural. It probably wouldn’t even occur to folks to worry about burnt flags, if the media didn’t choose to make a stink about it.

  3. jrkrideau says

    I have to admit that a national flag really means little to me. I come from a monarchy and the flag is not all that important. Her Majesty is another matter. I remember a Brit (former senor warrant officer) complaining about me talking about “Betty”. I reminded she was my Queen also.

  4. Dunc says

    Alternative hypothesis: they know perfectly well, and these settlements are a price that they’re willing to pay for the chilling effect of arresting protesters. The threat of arrest is very intimidating to a lot of people and can have a number of very unpleasant repercussions, no matter how baseless the arrest may be, and regardless of whether the charges actually stick or not. People can lose their jobs, their homes, and their children. Once entangled in the “justice” system, some people never escape, without ever even coming to trial. People under arrest may be subjected to various forms of abuse or even torture. Some people die in custody in “mysterious” circumstances.

  5. starskeptic says

    And also weirdly inconsistent because you find the flag printed on all manner of items like clothes and disposable products that are torn, dirtied, burned, or thrown away and nobody seems to care a whit.

    A lot of these are Stars and Stripes designs which have nothing to do with the flag; There’s also a difference between printing the flag on something like an article of clothing and incorporating an actual flag into the clothing…or using it for clothing.

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