Street v. New York

PETITIONER: Street
RESPONDENT: New York
LOCATION: The corner of Lafayette Avenue and St. James Place

DOCKET NO.: 5
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)
LOWER COURT:

CITATION: 394 US 576 (1969)
ARGUED: Oct 21, 1968
DECIDED: Apr 21, 1969

Facts of the case

Sidney Street was a black veteran of World War II and a recipient of the Bronze Star. He held a position with the New York City Transit Authority and had no prior criminal record. On June 6, 1966, Street was in his Brooklyn apartment listening to the radio when he heard a news announcement that civil rights activist James Meredith had been shot by a sniper during his march through Mississippi.

Street went to a bureau drawer and removed an old 48-star American flag. He carried the flag to the intersection of Lafayette Avenue and St. James Place, one block from his residence. He laid a piece of paper on the sidewalk. Then, keeping the flag properly folded, he set it on fire with a match. He held the burning flag in hand as long as he could, then laid it on the paper so that it would not touch the sidewalk. When a police officer arrived, he found Street standing over the burning flag and talking to a small group of people. Street admitted that he burned the flag. The officer later testified that he heard Street shout, "If they did that to Meredith, we don't need an American flag."

The New York City Criminal Court charged Street with malicious mischief for willfully and unlawfully defiling, casting contempt upon, and burning an American flag. The allegation included Street's words at the scene of the flag burning. At trial, Street moved to dismiss the information on the grounds that Street engaged in a constitutionally protected act because the flag burning was a form of protest protected by the First Amendment. The court dismissed this motion; Street was convicted and given a suspended sentence. On appeal, the court affirmed Street's conviction without opinion. The New York Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed, holding that the flag burning was an act of incitement fraught with danger to the public peace.

Question

In a trial for flag burning, was there sufficient evidence in the record to show that Street was not convicted for constitutionally protected speech when the allegation contained his statement, "If they did that to Meredith, we don't need an American flag"?

Media for Street v. New York

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 21, 1968 in Street v. New York

Earl Warren:

Sydney Street Appellant versus New York.

Mr. Goldstick.

David T. Goldstick:

Good morning Mr. Chief Justice.

Earl Warren:

Before you start, I should have said that the orders of the Court have been certified by the Chief Justice and filed with the Court below will not be announced thoroughly.

You may proceed now Mr. Goldstick.

David T. Goldstick:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This is an appeal from a conviction of the Criminal Court of the City of New York, where an appellant was convicted for malicious mischief.

And that he be filed and cast contempt upon and burned an American flag in violation of Section 1425 (16) (d), of the New York State Penal Law.

The charge was that he did willfully set fire to and burn the American flag and shout, “If they did that to James Meredith, We don't need and American Flag”.

The judgment was unanimously affirmed by the appellant term of the Supreme Court of New York without decision, and in turn, the Judgment unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals, Judge Fuld rendering the opinion.

The statute in question is set forth in page 5 of appellant's brief.

I might, at the Halter say that we agreed completely with Justice Fuld when he states that the central issue in this case is whether or not the deliberate act of burning an American flag in public as a protest maybe punished as a crime.

Parenthetically, we believed there was another issue that was raised then and that is raised here today, that assuming that New York State may punish such an act as a crime, may it do it under the statute in question.

The facts are really undisputed, on June 6, 1966 at about 5:30 in the afternoon, Sidney Street was sitting in his apartment listening to the radio when he heard news broadcasts that James Meredith, while marching through Mississippi was shot.

He went to his door to get an American Flag when down from his apartment to a street corner, put a piece of paper in the street folding the flag in one hand, properly fold it, put a match to it, and set it on fire.

A police officer testified at the trial that he saw the smoke, came over to find out what had occurred, saw on the street corner a flag partially burned and folded lying on the ground, heard a man shouting, couldn't quite make out what he was saying.

At the other street corner across the street, heard a man shout, “We don't need no damn flag!” Upon identify who the man was who it turned out to be the defendant.

Asked him if it was his flag, the appellant said “Yes, it was my flag”, and said the words “If they did that to James Meredith, We don't need the American Flag”.

Earl Warren:

Mr. Goldstick, Judge Fuld and his recital of the facts and his opinions for the Court of Appeals.

It does have a little minor error in his factual recital does he not?

When he says that your client told the small crowd which collected that quote “if they let that happen to Meredith, We don't need an American Flag”.

David T. Goldstick:

Now, we don't know if factual error then and I'll tell why Mr. Justice, because they also testified that he came over after the burning and that he questioned the person street there at the corner.

Now, I don't know whether when he questioned him loud enough for the crowd to have heard the question.

I think we may assume that he did.

Certainly, we may assume that the crowd did hear “We don't need no damn flag”, that's without question.

The other words, with the records just doesn't clear Your Honor.

Earl Warren:

I went to the record pretty carefully yesterday and I didn't see that there was anything to support the statement that you're client as he was burning the flag --

David T. Goldstick:

Oh, that's quite so.

Earl Warren:

It put it off, so he came told the small crowd that he collected --

David T. Goldstick:

Oh that's quite so.