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Man who established American law on flag-burning sues Cleveland, police, and InfoWars for 2016 RNC flag-burning arrest and prosecution.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Gregory Lee "Joey" Johnson won the landmark 1989 First Amendment flag-burning case, Texas v. Johnson. Cleveland police arrested and tried to prosecute him for flag-burning at the 2016 RNC. They lost. Now he's suing them to hold them accountable.

PRESS CONFERENCE: Credentialed media only.

January 11, 2018, 1:00 pm, at the Chandra Law Firm LLC
The Chandra Law Building
1265 W. 6th Street, Suite 400
Cleveland, OH 44113-1326

Cleveland, OH — Yesterday, Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio arising from his July 20, 2016 arrest and subsequent prosecution for flag burning at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Mr. Johnson and 16 other protestors were prosecuted.

On January 11, 2017, the Cleveland Municipal Court dismissed the case against Mr. Johnson. In October 2017, it dismissed the remaining cases.

Mr. Johnson, a San Francisco resident, would know. He was the Johnson in Texas v. Johnson, the landmark 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case establishing that burning the American flag is protected free speech. Mr. Johnson is a supporter of the “Revolutionary Communist Party” who protests what he perceives as American jingoism, imperialism, and capitalism. It was his flag-burning outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention that led to the Texas v. Johnson decision vindicating his rights. He came to Cleveland in the same spirit, this time to also protest the rising fascism represented by Donald Trump.

The complaint alleges that

  • Cleveland police officers arrested Mr. Johnson, falsely claiming that he set himself on fire, which video footage of the incident belies, and that

  • after flailing about trying to find another theory for prosecuting Mr. Johnson, the police then relied on InfoWars representatives’ demonstrably false claims that Mr. Johnson assaulted them.

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

Man who established American law on flag-burning sues Cleveland, police, and InfoWars for 2016 RNC flag-burning arrest and prosecution.

And then Cleveland police tweeted affirmation that they had done so:

Man who established American law on flag-burning sues Cleveland, police, and InfoWars for 2016 RNC flag-burning arrest and prosecution.

The complaint also alleges that the City's officer-training materials entitled “Crowd Management and [t]he Protection of Constitutional Rights,” which Chief Williams invoked in a court hearing related to the protester prosecutions, contained only a single page that could conceivably provide direction to officers confronting symbolic flag-burning. And that page suggested police officers should provide no protection to protestors. Instead, the page (depicted in paragraph 69 of the complaint) instructed Cleveland police officers to remain vigilant and immediately extinguish symbolic speech. Entitled “Officer and Crowd Engagement,” the page, a PowerPoint training slide, instructed City personnel to “be vigilant for activities such as burning of objects,” and directed them, “at the first sign of such activity,” to “deploy a quick response plan to immediately address the activity including extinguishing any fires."

Among those sued are the City of Cleveland, Cleveland public-safety director Michael McGrath, police chief Calvin Williams, police officers Timonthy Gaertner, William Stanton, James Bellomy, and Donald Taylor. Also sued are InfoWars, LLC; InfoWars Founder Alex Jones; and InfoWars representatives Joseph Biggs and Jordan Salkin.

One of Mr. Johnson’s counsel, Subodh Chandra, said, “While most Americans find flag-burning abhorrent, even high-school students know that it is constitutionally protected free speech. Even Justice Scalia said so, nearly 30 years ago. Cleveland police officers would and should know this if they were properly trained. Officers’ failure to protect Mr. Johnson—and indeed their decision to arrest and prosecute him, violated the Constitution. They must be held accountable to the rule of law.”

Mr. Johnson is principally represented by Mr. Chandra and Patrick Kabat of the Chandra Law Firm LLC, and is also represented by Donald Screen and Patrick Haney.

The case is captioned Johnson v. City of Cleveland, et al., N.D. Ohio Case No. 1:18-cv-00076. It is assigned to Judge Solomon Oliver.

The First Amended Complaint, along with its exhibits, is available here:

2018-01-11 Johnson v. City of Cleveland, et al. First Amended Complaint

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 4

Exhibit 5

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Exhibit 7

Exhibit 8

Related Practice Areas
Constitutional LawFirst Amendment

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