CLEVELAND (AP) — A man whose 1989 Supreme Court case led to a landmark decision affirming flag burning as protected speech sued the city of Cleveland on Thursday, along with police officers and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, for their roles in his arrest when he tried to burn a flag at the Republican convention in Cleveland in 2016.
The lawsuit claims Cleveland police officers immediately used fire extinguishers and took Gregory Lee Johnson to the ground after officers broke through a “safety circle” of fellow protesters when he set fire to the American flag in July 2016 in a convention free speech zone.
“They literally extinguished his speech,” the lawsuit says.
Johnson was jailed and charged with misdemeanor assault after two associates of Jones, host of the Infowars radio program, told police they were burned after the flag was set on fire, a claim the lawsuit says was never proven. The associates bragged on a video recorded in a bar and posted to YouTube afterward that they’d punched and kicked Johnson.
Johnson and his attorneys said there’s no evidence anyone was burned that day.
Body camera footage of the flag burning recorded by the associates and a flash drive containing their written statements were given to police and subsequently lost, attorney Subodh Chandra said.
Fifteen other protesters were arrested and charged with crimes. Prosecutors withdrew the charge against the 61-year-old Johnson, of San Francisco, last January. Charges against the other protesters were later dropped as well.
Defendants named in the lawsuit include Cleveland Safety Director Michael McGrath, Police Chief Calvin Williams, the two officers who arrested Johnson, Jones and his two associates. The lawsuit claims the city engaged in First Amendment retaliation against Johnson, wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution.
Johnson said he has burned dozens of flags during his years of protesting against the U.S. government and has only been arrested twice — at the Republican National Convention in Dallas in 1984 and during the same convention decades later in Cleveland.
His 1984 arrest and conviction resulted in the Supreme Court decision that invalidated state laws against desecration of the American flag.
“We had a right to protest, and we were right to do it,” Johnson said Thursday.
Officials for Cleveland and Infowars did not reply to emails seeking comment.
Attorney Patrick Kabat said Cleveland police engaged in an “act of political suppression” when they arrested Johnson.
Johnson had announced beforehand where and when he intended to burn a flag. Minutes before the scheduled attempt, the Cleveland Police Department posted on its Twitter account a photo of Cleveland firefighters standing by with the caption, “May be flag burning … Cleveland Fire on scene to take care of that!”
The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages and attorney fees.