Street v. New York

394 U.S. 576
Street v. New York
Argued: October 21, 1968
Decided: April 21, 1969


David T. Goldstick, New York City, for appellant.
Harry Brodbar, Brooklyn, N.Y., for appellee.
Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice BLACK, dissenting.

I agree with the excellent opinion written by Chief Judge Fuld for a unanimous Court of Appeals, upholding the New York statute which this Court now holds unconstitutional as applied. The entire state court construed the statute as applied to this appellant as making it an offense publicly to burn an American flag in order to protest something that had occurred. In other words the offense which that court sustained was the burning of the flag and not the making of any statements about it. The Court seems to console itself for holding this New York flag-burning law unconstitutional as applied by saying that, as it reads the record, the conviction could have been based on the words spoken by the appellant as he was burning the flag. Those words indicated a desire on appellant’s part to degrade and defame the flag. If I could agree with the Court’s interpretation of the record as to the possibility of the conviction’s resting on these spoken words, I would firmly and automatically agree that the law is unconstitutional. I would not feel constrained, as the Court seems to be, to search my imagination to see if I could think of interests the State may have in suppressing this freedom of speech. I would not balance away the First Amendment mandate that speech not be abridged in any fashion whatsoever. But I accept the unanimous opinion of the New York Court of Appeals that the conviction does not and could not have rested merely on the spoken words but that it rested entirely on the fact that the defendant had publicly burned the American flag-against the law of the State of New York.

It passes my belief that anything in the Federal Constitution bars a State from making the deliberate burning of the American flag an offense. It is immaterial to me that words are spoken in connection with the burning. It is the burning of the flag that the State has set its face against. ‘It rarely has been suggested that the constitutional freedom for speech and press extends its immunity to speech or writing used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute.’ Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U.S. 490, 498, 69 S.Ct. 684, 688, 93 L.Ed. 834 (1949). In my view this quotation from the Giboney case precisely applies here. The talking that was done took place ‘as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute’ against burning the American flag in public. I would therefore affirm this conviction.

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