United States v. Eichman
Annotate this Case
496 U.S. 310 (1990)
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U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990)
United States v. Eichman
Nos. 89-1433, 89-1434
Argued May 14, 1990
Decided June 11, 1990
496 U.S. 310
After this Court held, in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, that a Texas statute criminalizing desecration of the United States flag in a way that the actor knew would seriously offend onlookers was unconstitutional as applied to an individual who had burned a flag during a political protest, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act of 1989. The Act criminalizes the conduct of anyone who "knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon" a United States flag, except conduct related to the disposal of a "worn or soiled" flag. Subsequently, appellees were prosecuted in the District Courts for violating the Act: some for knowingly burning several flags while protesting various aspects of the Government's policies and others, in a separate incident, for knowingly burning a flag while protesting the Act's passage. In each case, appellees moved to dismiss the charges on the ground that the Act violates the First Amendment. Both District Courts, following Johnson, supra, held the Act unconstitutional as applied, and dismissed the charges.
Held: Appellees' prosecution for burning a flag in violation of the Act is inconsistent with the First Amendment. The Government concedes, as it must, that appellees' flag-burning constituted expressive conduct, and this Court declines to reconsider its rejection in Johnson of the claim that flag-burning as a mode of expression does not enjoy the First Amendment's full protection. It is true that this Act, unlike the Texas law, contains no explicit content-based limitation on the scope of prohibited conduct. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Government's asserted interest in protecting the "physical integrity" of a privately owned flag in order to preserve the flag's status as a symbol of the Nation and certain national ideals is related to the suppression, and concerned with the content, of free expression. The mere destruction or disfigurement of a symbol's physical manifestation does not diminish or otherwise affect the symbol itself. The Government's interest is implicated only when a person's treatment of the flag communicates a message to others that is inconsistent with the identified ideals. The precise language of the Act's
prohibitions confirms Congress' interest in the communicative impact of flag destruction, since each of the specified terms -- with the possible exception of "burns" -- unmistakably connotes disrespectful treatment of the flag and suggests a focus on those acts likely to damage the flag's symbolic value, and since the explicit exemption for disposal of "worn or soiled" flags protects certain acts traditionally associated with patriotic respect for the flag. Thus, the Act suffers from the same fundamental flaw as the Texas law, and its restriction on expression cannot "be justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech,'" Boos v. Barry, 485 U. S. 312, 485 U. S. 320. It must therefore be subjected to "the most exacting scrutiny," id. at 485 U. S. 321, and, for the reasons stated in Johnson, supra, at 491 U. S. 413-415, the Government's interest cannot justify its infringement on First Amendment rights. This conclusion will not be reassessed in light of Congress' recent recognition of a purported "national consensus" favoring a prohibition on flag-burning, since any suggestion that the Government's interest in suppressing speech becomes more weighty as popular opposition to that speech grows is foreign to the First Amendment. While flag desecration -- like virulent ethnic and religious epithets, vulgar repudiations of the draft, and scurrilous caricatures -- is deeply offensive to many, the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. Pp. 496 U. S. 313-319.
No. 89-1433, 731 F.Supp. 1123 (DDC 1990); No. 89-1434, 731 F.Supp. 415, affirmed.
BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 496 U. S. 319.