"If they don't like our flag, they
ought to go find one they do like"
"This flag ain't God. This is a piece of rag that came from Taiwan."
Isn't is amazing that many Americans did not even know what the flag looked like until the Civil War? American flags were only displayed on government buildings, U.S. ships, and forts until the war transformed the flag into an object of public adoration in the North, and a symbol of protest in the South (Goldstein 1).
Then, in 1898, William McKinley campaigned for president with the flag as his theme. He even called for a Flag Day to be recognized. As the U.S. grew into a major industrial and world power, American's sense of nationalism grew. Only one flag burning protest was recorded between the years 1900 and 1965 (3).In a 1965 case, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that "symbolic speech" could be protected by the First Amendment in the same way oral and published expressions were. Symbolic forms of speech could leave mass levels of confusion in their wakes. The Court declared that these powerful forms of expression were not allocated the same levels of protection under the laws, because they were incredibly controversial (21-22). On April 15, 1967, one flag burning protest to Vietnam in Central Park ignited an entire controversy with the nation. More burnings followed, and these incidents were seen by many as a threat to America's value system and political structure. According to Robert Golstein, the flag became the single symbol of political and cultural divide that ripped the country apart during the Vietnam years (11-12).
On July 4, 1968, President Johnson passed the first federal flag desecration law that subjected anyone who knowingly defaced, mutilated, burned, or trampled upon a flag with a $1,000 fine and/or one year in jail (13).This was the first time a flag law was debated as a violation of free speech, though this suppression was not declared unconstitutional until 1989. Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court did not extend First Amendment rights to individuals pertaining to state laws, they only focused on federal laws (15). The major free speech controversy came later in 1989 with Texas v. Johnson.