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Free speech: Westboro church Supreme Court case tests First Amendment

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"It was important that a group identified as a liberal organization with a Jewish legal director would say the First Amendment doesn't turn on the offensiveness of the speech or the noxiousness of the political philosophy that drives the speech," he says.

In 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson arrived in Dallas to participate in a street protest during the Republican National Convention. The demonstration ended at City Hall, where Mr. Johnson unfurled an American flag, doused it with kerosene, and set it on fire. Protesters simultaneously chanted: "America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you."

No one was injured during the protest, but several onlookers said later they were deeply offended. A witness to the burning gathered up the remains of the flag and buried them, respectfully, in his backyard.

Johnson was charged with desecrating a venerated object in violation of Texas law. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine. A state appeals court affirmed his conviction, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned it.

The case went to the US Supreme Court. A controversy that tested the justices like no other, it left the court sharply divided. By a 5-to-4 vote, the high court ruled that Johnson could not be prosecuted for engaging in an act of symbolic speech – burning the American flag.

"If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable," Justice William Brennan wrote in the majority opinion. "We have not recognized an exception to this principle even where our flag has been involved."

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