8 Major Decisions in the History of the American Flag

June 14 marks Flag Day, the Congressionally-sanctioned holiday that celebrates the United States’s primary symbol, the American flag. Historically, many laws have been established in order to pay respect to Old Glory. As a result, conflicts about the treatment of the stars and stripes have gone all the way to the highest court in the land. Let’s take a look back at eight major Supreme Court decisions involving flags:

1. Halter v. Nebraska (1907)

Nebraska law made selling merchandise with flags or using the flag as an advertising tool. When Halter sold beer bottles with the flag on it, he wound up in court. Rather than using First Amendment justifications (which would prove successful in future cases), he argued that state law should not make stipulations on a federal symbol. The Justices disagreed, and flag “desecration” laws remained intact… for a while, anyway.

2. Stromberg v. California (1931)

Camp counselor Yetta Stromberg was found guilty of having her campers salute a red flag representing communism. At the time, a California law stipulated that displaying a red flag “as a sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to government” was a felony. Appealing the decision all the way to the nation’s highest court, the Justices agreed with Stromberg that the law infringed on her First Amendment rights. The case marked the first time the Supreme Court struck down a state law for violating the First Amendment.

3. West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1942)

The same year the Pledge of Allegiance was officially adopted by Congress, West Virginia required students and teachers to salute the flag daily, with those who failed to comply being punished or expelled. In a 6-3 vote, however, the Supreme Court decided that forcing kids to salute the flag was unconstitutional. Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote, “No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

4. Street v. New York (1969)

After an assassination attempt was made on civil rights leader James Meredith, citizen Sidney Street burned a flag on a street corner in protest, saying, “If they let that happen to Meredith, we don’t need an American flag.” The state of New York proceeded to find him guilty of burning and speaking contemptuously about the flag. Street appealed, saying that the First Amendment allowed him to say whatever he wanted about the flag, and five Justices agreed. Instead of addressing the flag burning issue (a debate that would linger for two more decades), they focused on the speech part and overturned his conviction since the previous court decision lumped together the speech and flag burning charges together.

5. Smith v. Goguen (1974)

Massachusetts teenager Goguen sewed a small U.S. flag to the rear of his pants, and was subsequently arrested for “publicly treat[ing] contemptuously the flag.”  Initially sentenced to six months in jail, Goguen won in the Supreme Court when six Justices decided the state law was far too vague and broad to find Goguen’s actions criminal.

6. Spence v. Washington (1974)

Protesting recent U.S. militant action, a college student used removable tape to make a peace sign on an American flag he had on display. He was convicted under a Washington law that forbid adding marks to a flag. Disagreeing with the Washington State Supreme Court, the federal Supreme Court believed the student’s actions to be covered by his First Amendment rights and that this modest and reversible alteration was a reasonable form of protest.

7. Texas v. Johnson (1989)

Finally, the flag burning issue was tackled head on. In an act of protest against the Reagan administration, Gregory Johnson burned a flag in front of Dallas City Hall and was later sentenced to one year in jail. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ultimately found that while burning the flag would be considered offensive speech to many, the Constitution ultimately protects this form of expression.

8. United States v. Eichman (1990)

Following the Texas v. Johnson decision, Congress responded by passing the Flag Protection Act to make burning the flag explicitly illegal. Eichman was one of many charged with subsequently burning flags, so he took the case to the Supreme Court. The Justices agreed with their previous ruling on the issue, declaring that burning a flag is a form of free speech.

Photo Credit: Frydolin


Clifford Edwards
Clifford Edwards4 years ago

In a perverse way, burning a flag can be seen as a celebration of one's First Ammendment rights, so the act of burning it becomes a way of honoring this country instead of insulting it.Think about it.

Bill and Katie Dresbach
Katie & Bill D4 years ago

Thank You! Happy Flag Day to All!

Sue Brewer
Sue Brewer4 years ago

Thanks for this.

Maureen Leibich
Maureen Leibich4 years ago

I have the utmost respect for the flag of this country, but I have to agree that the flag itself is nothing but a piece of cloth. It I what it symbolizes that is important. That SCOTUS says it is a matter of free speech when you burn a flag shocked me from the beginning, but I can understand their reasoning. If I say I have lost a lot of respect for this country, that is free speech. If someone who has lost a lot of respect for this country burns a flag, that is also a form of free speech. Still, I would have to berate anyone I saw doing that. After all. It isn't the flag that causes the lack of respect; it's the politicians who have stopped serving the people they are supposed to serve.

Patricia H.
Patricia H.4 years ago


Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown4 years ago

Texas v. Johnson was written by the great Justice William Brennan, one of the greatest men to ever sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, a constant champion of the people and the U.S. Constitution, it was one of his last cases. He is sorely missed on the high court.

Cathleen K.
Cathleen K4 years ago

Marianne - of course there was nothing disrespectful or wrong about what you did. Cleaning a flag that has met with a mishap is the height of respect, and that business about not getting them wet has long been retired as a relic of a past where activities needed to be found for bored troops in frontier posts.

The flag is a piece of cloth that in and of itself doesn't matter - it's what it symbolizes that's important, and the SCOTUS has been consistent about viewing it thusly. Too many of us fetishize it, full stop. Flags were created as communication tools to let soldiers on battlefields see where the rest of their guys were located. They are signs, not living things with magical properties - except for that Fairy Flag at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, of course. Not only does it make Clan MacLeod victorious in battle, but it brings herring into the loch below the castle. Old Glory can make no such claims, so let's put it in perspective, aye?

David Youmans
David Youmans4 years ago

I think it would be a better gesture to do a "flag purification" than to burn it. Get a large group and use Cedar and Sage smudge sticks to do a formal cleansing on the flag as a method of reclaiming the symbol for the PEOPLE of this country. Make it OUR flag again, so that it can become a symbol of the people of this nation rather than a symbol of the corruption that's rampant in our political system.

The original symbolism of the flag needs to be returned to the people of the U.S., along with the nation itself. Burning it really doesn't do this...

Christine W.
Christine W4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

paul m.
paul m4 years ago