STEVENS, J., Dissenting Opinion
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
491 U.S. 397
Texas v. Johnson
CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS OF TEXAS
No. 88-155 Argued: March 21, 1989 --- Decided: June 21, 1989
JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting.
As the Court analyzes this case, it presents the question whether the State of Texas, or indeed the
Federal Government, has the power to prohibit the public desecration of the American flag. The
question is unique. In my judgment, rules that apply to a host of other symbols, such as state
flags, armbands, or various privately promoted emblems of political or commercial identity, are
not necessarily controlling. Even if flagburning could be considered just another species of
symbolic speech under the logical application of the rules that the Court has developed in its
interpretation of the
in other contexts, this case has an intangible dimension
that makes those rules inapplicable.
A country's flag is a symbol of more than "nationhood and national unity."
at 407, 410, 413,
and n. 9, 417, 420. It also signifies the ideas that characterize the society that has chosen that
emblem as well as the special history that has animated the growth and power of those ideas. The
and the tricolor both symbolized "nationhood and national unity," but they had
vastly different meanings. The message conveyed by some flags -- the swastika, for example --
may survive long after it has outlived its usefulness as a symbol of regimented unity in a
particular nation. [p437]
So it is with the American flag. It is more than a proud symbol of the courage, the determination,
and the gifts of nature that transformed 13 fledgling Colonies into a world power. It is a symbol
of freedom, of equal opportunity, of religious tolerance, and of goodwill for other peoples who
share our aspirations. The symbol carries its message to dissidents both at home and abroad who
may have no interest at all in our national unity or survival.
The value of the flag as a symbol cannot be measured. Even so, I have no doubt that the interest