Flag burning case began with incident during Republican Convention in Dallas

The court case that wound up protecting the right to burn an American began with an incident in Dallas during the 1984 Republican National Convention.

A protester named Gregory Lee Johnson burned the American flag in front of city hall and was arrested. The Supreme Court eventually ruled in 1989 that flag burning was a protected form of free speech under the constitution.

But on Tuesday, president-elect Donald Trump ignited another controversy by calling for consequences for the act. He tweeted "Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!"

A Dallas County jury in the 1980’s originally convicted Johnson for burning the flag and gave him the maximum sentence -- a year in jail.

"I was there, I was a young prosecutor fresh out of law school and I got to watch the whole trial,” said attorney Toby Shook.

The former prosecutor, turned defense attorney, said it was a very emotional trial.

"I very much wanted him to be convicted,” Shook said. “I was obviously very involved in watching that trial, watched it every day and was very much rooting for the home team, ya know."

But in 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law and Johnson's conviction.

"It really wasn't a surprise, I guess, once you let the emotion out of it and calmly reflect what the Constitution stands for,” Shook said.

Texas v. Johnson was the first of two cases where the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed burning or desecrating the American flag is a form of "symbolic speech" protected under the first amendment.

Trump's tweet may fuel patriotic passion, but a SMU professor said any changes are unlikely.

"This won't have any tangible legal impact, but it's a way to put himself on the popular side of an incendiary issue,” Wilson said.

SMU Political Scientist Matthew Wilson said the Trump tweet is not tantamount to some kind of executive presidential order, and even with the Supreme Court vacancy, Wilson sees very little chance the interpretation of the law will change.

"In order to take the kind of measures he's talking about, you would require the United States Supreme Court to reverse itself on that Texas V. Johnson decision and until and unless Trump has at least two appointees, that's very unlikely to happen,” Wilson said.

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