CLEVELAND (CN) - A San Francisco man whose right to burn the flag was enshrined into U.S. law sued Cleveland and conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones, claiming the city suppressed a flag-burning protest at last year's GOP convention and Jones' InfoWars reporters gave false reports to bolster assault charges.
Communist activist Gregory Lee Johnson became famous after the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas for burning an American flag.
He was charged with violating a Texas vandalism law and his appeal made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in 1989 that the flag was a symbol of speech and Johnson had a right to desecrate it, overturning laws that made the act illegal in 48 states.
Johnson was prepared to exercise his right again to protest then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer. He says in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Cleveland federal court that he signaled his intention to burn the flag outside the Quicken Loans Arena in a press release and media advisory.
The city even assigned a detail of undercover officers to accompany him to an area set aside for protests, according to the complaint filed by Cleveland attorney Subodh Chandra.
Once at the site, however, officials allegedly shut down his protest by dousing the flame he had lit on the corner of the flag with “cold fire.” Johnson claims a group of supporters from the communist political group RevCom formed a protective circle around him so he could burn the flag but officers breached it to snuff out his protest with an extinguisher.
The police “literally extinguished his speech,” the lawsuit states. “Then they dragged him to the ground where, prone and compliant, he was kicked and punched by the very men the city would charge him with assaulting."
Johnson says the police arrested and detained him after officers squelched his protest and then later charged him with assault, but the charges against him were dropped in January 2017, just before Trump’s inauguration.
Cleveland spokesman Dan Williams said the city had received the lawsuit on Thursday but could not comment on pending litigation.
Jones and his outlet InfoWars are also named in Wednesday’s lawsuit. Johnson claims that "self-styled" InfoWars reporters celebrated in a nearby bar after his arrest and created false reports that Johnson has struck them to support the charges of misdemeanor assault.
Johnson also claims InfoWars and the police had a video of the incident that would have cleared him but it disappeared after his arrest.
Jones and InfoWars did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for an interview.
“Mr. Johnson’s persecution in Cleveland was no patrolman’s error,” the lawsuit states. “It was ratified by the city’s continuing retaliation against him. And it represents a calculated assault on the rule of law; the culmination of a decades-old practice by Cleveland police officers to seek unlawful convictions on the basis of ‘unpatriotic’ symbolic speech.”
Seventy-four percent of respondents in a recent YouGov poll said flag burning was not an appropriate form of protest, and 48 percent of those polled said that they would favor a constitutional amendment banning it.
Trump famously tweeted when he was president-elect that people should be jailed or lose their citizenship if they burned the flag.
But 44 percent of respondents in the same poll were opposed to jail time for burning the flag, while 38 percent favored it. Fifty-eight percent opposed a measure that would strip people of their citizenship. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they would support such a punishment.
Johnson’s attorney, Chandra, said in a statement, “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.”
Johnson’s complaint names as defendants the city of Cleveland, Chief of Police Calvin Williams, Texas-based InfoWars, Jones and InfoWars reporters Joseph Biggs and Jordan Salkin, and multiple public safety officials.
He seeks compensatory and punitive damages for alleged violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights.