Does Having Freedom of Speech Mean We Can Burn Our Flag?

Lesson Duration

Author:  The First Amendment Center – 1st for All

This lesson helps students understand that the First Amendment is dynamic. Our understanding and interpretations of it have evolved as American society has changed. While citizens may disagree about such controversial issues as burning the flag of the United States, our ability to discuss this topic — and to take and defend a position on it — is an integral part of our freedom. In this lesson, students participate in a moot court activity based on the Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson(1989), which involved burning the American flag.


  • Symbolic speech — actions or objects that represent someone’s thoughts, ideas or words — is a form of expression that is generally protected by the First Amendment in the same fashion as words that are spoken.
  • Freedom of speech extends to statements with which we may disagree, including those that are hateful, defiant and contemptuous.
  • Speech cannot be prohibited because of undesirable actions that may result from it.
  • Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea just because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.
  • In general, individuals cannot be punished by the government if the reason for the punishment is the message or idea expressed.
  • Citizens have a right to protest government policy.


The First Amendment Center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government.