Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The first amendment and the burning of the Koran

April 29, 2011 by Kathleen Maher


In 1989, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag at a political rally protesting the Reagan administration.

Because of the laws in Texas at that time, he was promptly arrested for desecration of a venerated object. Fighting his arrest and subsequent conviction, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

In the landmark case Texas v. Johnson, the Court ruled that Johnson’s actions were protected as symbolic speech under the First Amendment, stating "Under the circumstances, Johnson's burning of the flag constituted expressive conduct, permitting him to invoke the First Amendment... Occurring as it did at the end of a demonstration coinciding with the Republican National Convention, the expressive, overtly political nature of the conduct was both intentional and overwhelmingly apparent."

The idea that we as citizens have the right to express our thoughts and opinions, either verbally or symbolically is a key element of our identity as Americans. What happens if someone takes that right too far?

We were recently faced with another controversial display of free speech when Florida Pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran, the Islamic Holy Text, declaring the book “guilty” of “crimes against humanity.”

However, unlike Johnson’s burning of the flag, the burning of the Koran led to an outpouring of violence in Afghanistan, resulting in the death of over 20 people and wounding of dozens more. Does that mean we should prosecute or condemn Pastor Terry Jones for his actions?

Teacher's corner

Does the U.S. Constitution follow the flag? Where do geographic boundaries of America's constitutional rights begin and end? The U.S. Supreme Court attempted to resolve this question in what is known as the Insular Cases.

That is the question that Congress may have to grapple with, as some members consider taking action in response to the Koran burning. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said Congress will look into some kind of action, although he would not explicitly say that Congress will pass a resolution condemning the Pastor. Always a dicey matter when it comes to the issue of free speech, the added complication of throwing religion into the mix makes it that much harder.

Where do you stand? Was Terry Jones within his rights under the first amendment when he burned a religious text, or should he be condemned, possibly prosecuted for the consequences of his actions?

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