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1 month ago

News Source: nytimes.com
Cleveland Is Paying $225,000 To A Man Who Burned The American Flag
cleveland rights protest

Cleveland Is Paying $225,000 To A Man Who Burned The American Flag

After Cleveland police officers arrested Gregory L. Johnson in 2016 as he burned an American flag outside the Republican National Convention, Mr. Johnson sued the city, saying the officers had violated his First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court had ruled decades before that flag burning was a protected form of speech. The case was Texas v. Johnson, and the defendant was the same Gregory L. Johnson. He had doused a flag with kerosene in 1984 during the Republican convention in Dallas.

This week, three decades after the court invalidated prohibitions on flag desecration in 48 states, the city of Cleveland agreed to pay Mr. Johnson $225,000 to settle his claim that officers had retaliated against him for an exercise of free expression.

Mr. Johnson, 63, said in his lawsuit that officers had used fire extinguishers to put out the burning flag and pushed him to the ground during the protest outside the convention hall in July 2016. He was charged with misdemeanor assault after two people claimed they had been burned in the incident. The charges were later dropped, and a judge dismissed charges against 15 other people arrested at the protest.

Cleveland did not admit to any of the claims in Mr. Johnson’s lawsuit and denied liability, a city spokesman said, adding that the city’s insurer will pay the settlement.

Mr. Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, has spent decades protesting what he describes as American imperialism and inequality, and said that he planned to use the settlement money to support causes in line with his ideology. “I’m a full-on volunteer for the revolution,” he said.

Legal experts said they were surprised to learn that Mr. Johnson had been arrested again, in part because the legal precedent for flag burning is clear — and also because they were surprised by his commitment.

“I didn’t know he was still at it,” said Amy Adler, a professor at the New York University School of Law.

The city’s agreement to pay Mr. Johnson to settle the lawsuit was announced just before Flag Day, which has been observed on June 14 for more than a century, although it is not an official federal holiday.

In 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Texas law under which Mr. Johnson had been charged with burning a flag was unconstitutional, the decision was met with fierce opposition. Months later, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act of 1989, which the Supreme Court overturned the next year.

A Gallup poll in 2005 found that a majority of American adults wanted to allow states to outlaw flag burning. In 2006, a proposed constitutional amendment failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to be sent to the states for ratification by just one vote.

Leading politicians and presidential candidates from both parties have supported proposals to outlaw some forms of flag burning. On Saturday, President Trump backed a constitutional amendment proposed by Senator Steve Daines of Montana that would ban the practice outright. Mr. Trump suggested after the 2016 election that flag burners should be punished with jail time or loss of citizenship.

There are no signs that the current court will reconsider the issue any time soon, and at least two members of the court’s conservative majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, have indicated that they hold the court’s 1989 decision in high esteem.

Ms. Adler said the most difficult First Amendment cases often involve speech or expression that a large portion of the public finds reprehensible. “It was a very painful case for the court and the country,” Ms. Adler said.

Katie Fallow, a senior lawyer at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said many Americans often disagree with court rulings on “lightning rod” issues like flag burning.

“The First Amendment and the Bill of Rights have long been viewed as — and were intended to be — somewhat counter-majoritarian to protect the rights of a minority,” she said, citing opinions that restrict prayer in schools or allow protests near funerals.

One of the nation’s foremost flag wavers, John Janik, chairman of the National Flag Day Foundation, said that although he found flag-burning protests despicable, he does not support laws that seek to criminalize the act.

“Anyone who would disgrace that flag or harm the flag is terrible and deserves all the disrespect you can give him, but this is the land of the free,” Mr. Janik said. “I’m not for a law that takes away that freedom.”

Mr. Johnson said he has burned many flags since he was first arrested for doing it in 1984, but he always does it deliberately, as a form of protest — not on a whim.

“It’s not a gimmick,” he said. “It’s something to make a serious condemnation of this system.”