Activism, Uncensored: A History of Flag-Burning
News2Share follows flag-burning demonstrations through the years
Ford Fischer’s News2Share crew has put together a neat time-travel compilation, showing flag-burning demonstrations through the years, held by the Revolutionary Communist Party, or “RevComs.” As captured here, these events sometimes inspired outraged reactions by conservative counter-protesters, including Proud Boys.
There’s a historical through-line to these demonstrations. In 1984, at the Republican Convention in Dallas, it was a Revolutionary Communist leader named Gregory Lee Johnson whose decision to burn a flag led to his being a defendant in the landmark Supreme Court Case, Texas v. Johnson. With William Brennan writing the majority opinion, this case affirmed, by a slim 5-4 vote, that the act of burning the flag was “sufficiently imbued” with expressive speech to “implicate the First Amendment.”
Ford does his usual great job of simply filming the events and capturing what the RevComs believe to be the point they’re making in these demonstrations. I’m not going to lie, however: this video is frustrating for me to watch, since it captures how far almost everyone on the political spectrum has drifted from the embrace of the free speech idea since that 1989 Supreme Court ruling.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton expressed support for criminal penalties for flag-burning (although no action has been taken), and even the RevComs don’t seem to understand that Texas v. Johnson was just one of a series of rulings that explicitly rolled back attempts to outlaw not just flag-burning, but revolutionary ideologies in general. The ruling in the Johnson case was only possible because of the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio, which essentially struck down prior rulings banning the advocacy of the “necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing” the U.S. government. After Brandenburg, the new standard became incitement to “imminent” lawless action.
In a dissent to Texas v. Johnson, Justice John Paul Stevens — normally a speech advocate — wrote that the flag held unique value as a symbol of unity and the national idea, and though “the creation of a federal right to post bulletin boards and graffiti on the Washington Monument might enlarge the market for free expression,” that was “a cost I would not pay.” Brennan’s contra perspective, that allowing flag burning represented the essence of the American idea, was at the time a dominant belief among liberals. Brennan wrote that to uphold a ruling outlawing flag-burning would “eviscerate our holding in Brandenburg,” and the majority wasn’t willing to go there.
Brandenburg was a ruling upholding speech rights of a Klan member that ironically had the effect of ending decades of attempts to outlaw communist speech. Today, through cases like the J6 “seditious conspiracy” prosecutions (including of Proud Boys), the federal government is attempting to re-expand the definition of incitement in a way that almost certainly will end up having ramifications for leftist revolutionaries like the RevComs. Judges are again trying to wind the clock back to the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, when being a revolutionary at all was dangerous, let alone a flag-burning one.
Either way, it’s interesting to see how peoples’ reactions have changed over the years, and for this, we should be glad Ford and his crew were there to capture these demonstrations. What’s your take on flag-burning?