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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Photo Credit: Frydolin
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