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Cleveland to pay $225K to 2016 RNC protester Gregory Johnson, for retaliation claims

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Johnson was burning the American flag at the 2016 Republican National Convention, when police intervened. He was the defendant in the landmark 1989 Texas v. Johnson Supreme Court case, which held that flag-burning is First Amendment-protected speech.

Cleveland, OH — The City of Cleveland has agreed to pay Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson $225,000 to settle his federal First Amendment-retaliation lawsuit over his unconstitutional arrest and prosecution for flag burning at the July 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Mr. Johnson and 15 other protestors were prosecuted.

On January 11, 2017, the Cleveland Municipal Court dismissed the supposed criminal case against Mr. Johnson. In October 2017, Municipal Court Judge Charles L. Patton dismissed the remaining "criminal" cases, rebuking Cleveland police's actions:

If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea without more that removes the idea from the First Amendment’s protection. See, Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S., at 55-56; City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789, (1984). The U.S. Supreme Court has not recognized an exception to this principle even where the flag has been involved in protest marches.
In the case pending before the Court, the defendants were engaged in the expressive conduct of flag burning. As repugnant as that behavior may be to some, Texas v. Johnson makes it plain that such conduct may not be sanctioned as breaches of the peace.

Mr. Johnson was the Johnson in the very Texas v. Johnson case Judge Patton cited—the landmark 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case establishing that burning the American flag is protected symbolic speech. It was Mr. Johnson's flag-burning outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention that led to the high court's decision. Mr. Johnson is a supporter of the “Revolution Club,” which protests what he perceives as American jingoism, imperialism, and capitalism.

He came to the 2016 RNC in Cleveland to express these beliefs—and to protest the rising authoritarianism represented by Donald Trump.

Video footage of the police action definitely disproves Cleveland police officers'—and the city administration's—claims that Mr. Johnson had set himself on fire. Mr. Johnson also had no burn marks on himself or his clothing. Nor did anyone else. The protest was peaceful.

Simply put, city officials' statements were false:

Chief Calvin Williams: "They burned, or attempt[ed] to burn, an American flag, which is their right, but in doing so, the individual had actually lit the flag, lit himself on fire, and as we're trying to put him out, and he's trying to push my officer away, he actually got a couple other people lit on fire, which we tried to put out too..." Williams's claims were false.

Cleveland to pay $225K to 2016 RNC protester Gregory Johnson, for retaliation claims

Stills of video footage prove Mr. Johnson was not on fire when police began literally extinguishing his constitutionally protected speech.

Mr. Johnson had space around him and was not on fire when Cleveland police started dousing his free-speech rights. And later clips show neither he nor his clothes were burned.

Just before arresting Mr. Johnson, Cleveland police boasted on Twitter that they anticipated violating his rights:

Cleveland to pay $225K to 2016 RNC protester Gregory Johnson, for retaliation claims

Cleveland to pay $225K to 2016 RNC protester Gregory Johnson, for retaliation claims

Subodh Chandra, Johnson's lead counsel said, "Instead of protecting RNC protestors' constitutional rights, Cleveland police stalked them, literally extinguished their speech rights, and then arrested and prosecuted them—violating 30-year-old Supreme Court precedent taught to schoolchildren. City leaders have yet to hold officers accountable for lying about Mr. Johnson being on fire and setting others on fire. They're simply defiant and unapologetic about their failure to uphold the rule of constitutional law within Cleveland city limits."

Chandra continued, "Why does the truth about what the video footage shows happened apparently not matter to a single Cleveland official? Where is the internal-affairs investigation? Where is the Civilian Police Review Board investigation? Where were the county or city prosecutor's offices, which let the statute of limitations run out on prosecuting these officers for their false claims?"

Explaining his beliefs, Johnson said, "I burned the flag outside of the 2016 RNC as Trump was nominated because, 'America Was NEVER Great,' and it is wrong to close our eyes to the history of genocide and slavery, wars of empire, invasions and occupations, coups and torture—all the atrocities the U.S. government has committed here and around the world. When Cleveland police unjustly and brutally arrested me and 15 others, they attacked the Supreme Court decision I won 30 years ago holding that flag burning in protest is a powerful form of constitutionally protected speech critical of the government."

Chandra added, "No matter what one may think of Mr. Johnson's views or his manner of expressing them, we live in a time where respect for fundamental rights is eroding and authoritarianism is on the rise. That calls for more expressions of dissent, not self-appointed speech police extinguishing dissent—and then lying about it."

The press conference to discuss the $225,000 settlement held at The Chandra Law Firm LLC can be found here:

More details about the case and evidence can be found here.

Related Practice Areas
First AmendmentGovernment Ethics, Misconduct, Fraud, & AbusePolice Misconduct & Brutality

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