New York Law Journal Monday, May 14, 1990



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New York Law Journal

Monday, May 14, 1990



James C. Goodale, of Debevoise & Plimpton, submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Flag Protection Act of 1989.

On the Politics of the Flag Case

Today the Supreme Court will hear argument in this year’s flag-burning cases, United States v. Eichman and United States v. Haggerty. While these cases involve critical constitutional issues, the more important issue may be political: how to avoid a constitutional amendment which would undermine the First Amendment should the Court invalidate the Flag Protection Act of 1989.1

The most obvious way to avoid a constitutional crisis is for the Court to reverse the two district courts that held the Act unconstitutional. This may not, however, be as easy as it seems. Congress passed the Act in the wake of last year’s decision in Texas v. Johnson,2 which invalidated a Texas flag-desecration statute on First Amendment grounds. Thus, even George Bush, in signing the Act, expressed “serious doubts” as to its constitutionality.3

The Court can uphold the Act as constitutional only by concluding (1) that the Act furthers a substantial governmental interest that is unrelated to suppressing speech and can therefore be upheld under the lenient standard of review announced in a case called O’Brien,4 (2) that the government has a compelling interest in preventing flag-burning, or (3) that flag-burning – like words that encourage imminent lawless action – shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre – is not protected by the First Amendment.

While the Court could conceivably hold the Act unconstitutional for any of these reasons, to do so would require the Court to revisit the issues settled a year ago in Johnson. Indeed, the government concedes that the Court can only exit this maze by overruling Johnson.

In Johnson, the Court ruled that a law proscribing flag-burning, unlike the law proscribing draft card burnings in O’Brien, was directly related to the suppression of expression. In contrast, the O’Brien Court upheld a law prohibiting draft card burning, finding a substantial non-speech-related governmental interest – maintenance of the selective service system. The Flag Protection Act serves no comparable non-speech-related interest; each interest asserted – protecting the flag’s symbolic value, its importance as a unifying device, etc. – is, when scrutinized, speech-related.

It is for precisely this reason that the government has conceded that the Court cannot equate flag-burning with draft card burning. It has not conceded, however, that the Court will be unable to find a “compelling interest” in the prevention of flag-burning. If the Court recognizes such an interest – and finds the Act narrowly tailored to serve that interest – the Act will be upheld.

The obvious problem is that that Johnson Court has already held that the government does not have such an interest. While the government attempts to avoid Johnson by arguing that congress’s passage of the Act itself demonstrates a compelling interest in flag-preservation, this argument seems halfhearted: If all legislation in which Congress expressed a special interest were entitled to an automatic finding of constitutionality, the Supreme Court would not have much to do.

Accordingly, the government’s principal argument is that Johnson should be overruled because flag-burning, like “fighting words,” is not protected speech. The trouble with this argument is: first, the Act penalizes flag-burning whether or not it fits into any recognized exception to the First Amendment – whether or not, for example, a reasonable onlooker would view the flag-burning as an invitation to exchange fisticuffs;5 and second, the Johnson Court expressly declined to “create for the flag an exception to the joust of principles protected by the First Amendment.”6

Faced with these difficulties, what’s the Court to do? After all Johnson was only a 5-4 decision with Justice Kennedy writing an anguished concurrence. Superficially, an easy out would be to hold flag-burning and the draft-card burning indistinguishable, despite the government’s concession to the contrary. Senator Biden, a principal architect of the Act, has as amicus, asked the Court to do exactly that. This option, like those discussed above, would, however, do overwhelming damage to the First Amendment.

Perhaps the better part of valor would be for the Court to follow the lead of the two lower courts, hold the Act unconstitutional, and indicate, in passing, what kind of flag protection legislation would be constitutional. For example, a statute prohibiting the desecration of the flag in a manner “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and . . . likely to incite or produce such action,”7 would probably be upheld.

A clear message from the Court would enable Congress to go back to the drawing board. Whether anything less than full support for the Act will satisfy Congress is anyone’s guess. But another effort by Congress is clearly better than a constitutional amendment, or, indeed, a ruling by the Court that the Act is constitutional.



1Pub. L. No. 101-131, 103 Stat. 777.

2109 S.Ct. 2533 (1989).

3The Act punishes anyone who “knowlingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States.”

4391 U.S. 367 (1968).

5See. e.g., Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).

6Texas v. Johnson, 109 S.Ct. at 2546.

7Texas v. Johnson, 109 S.Ct. at 2542 (quoting Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 447 (1969)).

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