Case Topics: Flag Burning, Freedom of Speech

"If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. . . ." —Justice William Brennan, speaking for the majority

In a political demonstration during the Republican National Convention in Texas, protesting the policies of the Reagan Administration and of certain corporations based in Dallas, Gregory Lee Johnson doused an American flag with kerosene and set it on fire. No one was hurt or threatened with injury, but some witnesses said they were seriously offended, and Johnson was charged and convicted with the desecration of a venerated object, in violation of the Texas Penal Code. In a split decision, the Supreme Court determined that Johnson’s actions were symbolic speech protected by his First Amendment Rights.

About the materials

These materials were developed for students of various skill levels, and teachers should choose the level that works best for their students. Answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities can be found in the "Answers & Differentiation Ideas" tab under each case.

Background summary and questions to consider (by reading level)

Important vocabulary (by reading level)

Legal Concepts

Other useful background information

Street Law Activities*

The Case

After the Case

* See the "Answers & Differentiation Ideas" tab for access to answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities.


Teaching strategies used


Planning time and activities

If you have one day . . .

If you have two days . . .

  • Complete all activities for the first day.
  • On the second day, discuss the activity that students completed for homework. Compare the opinions of students in the class (as noted in the continuum activity on day one) with the opinions of the American public as a whole.
  • Next, complete The Amendment Process. This lesson provides a nice segue into the WebQuest.

If you have three days . . .

  • Complete all activities for the first and second days.
  • On the third day, begin the WebQuest activity.
  • Have students work on the WebQuest for homework.

If you have four days . . .

  • Complete all activities for the first, second, and third days.
  • On the fourth day, complete the WebQuest activity. Students can begin writing the letter in class and finish it for homework.
  • Consider wrapping up the case by using the same continuum activity regarding students' opinions about the constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning that you did on the first day. This would allow you to determine whether students' opinions had changed.
  • The Political Cartoon Analysis: Hayworth the Bear can also be used as a wrap-up feature.

    (Note to teachers: The Data Analysis and Political Cartoon Analysis activities could easily be incorporated into a test or quiz. Honors level students could probably do the WebQuest as a two-day activity, without any of the preceding activities.)
For select case materials and activities, Street Law provides answers and suggestions for differentiation.

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