The Warren Court (1953–69)

Freedom of Expression

What did the Warren Court rule with respect to burning the American flag?

The Warren Court did not rule specifically on whether the physical act of burning the flag was a form of free expression under the First Amendment. The Court did reverse the conviction of Sidney Street for burning an American flag in New York. Street burned his flag after learning that civil rights activist James Meredith had been shot in Mississippi. Street allegedly said while burning the flag: “We don’t need no damn flag” and “If they let that happen to Meredith, we don’t need no damn flag.” Authorities charged Street under a state law that criminalized defying or “casting contempt” upon the flag by words.

In Street v. New York (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction, finding that the law violated the First Amendment “because it permitted him to be punished merely for speaking defiant or contemptuous words about the American flag.” The Court added that “it is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”


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