In August 1984, the Republican National Convention was held in Dallas, Texas. On August 22, a group of about 100 demonstrators marched through the streets of Dallas to dramatize the consequences of nuclear war and protest certain policies of President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Gregory Lee Johnson was a leader and organizer of the group. When the group reached Dallas City Hall, an American flag was handed to Johnson who soaked it in kerosene and set it on fire. Several individuals who witnessed the burning indicated that they were offended by the action. However, no violence occurred, and no one was physically injured or threatened. Shortly after the event, police arrived and arrested Johnson. He was charged with desecration of a venerated object in violation of the Texas Penal Code.
Johnson was convicted in a Texas District Court, sentenced to one year in jail, and assessed a $2,000 fine. A Texas Court of Appeals upheld his conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, however, reversed the judgment of the lower court and thus overturned Johnson’s conviction. That court reasoned that the Texas statute was not written narrowly enough to encompass only those flag burnings that were likely to result in a serious disturbance of the peace. The court also found that the flag’s special status was not endangered by Johnson’s conduct. The State of Texas then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.