“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

This case explores the legal concept of freedom of speech.

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

This section is for teachers.

Use the links below to access:

  • student versions of the activities in .PDF and Word formats
  • how to differentiate and adapt the materials
  • how to scaffold the activities
  • how to extend the activities
  • technology suggestions
  • answers to select activities  

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About the Case

Learning Activities

The Case

After the Case

Teacher Resources

Teaching Strategies Used

Landmark Cases Glossary

The LandmarkCases.org glossary compiles all of the important vocab terms from case materials. It is provided as a view-only Google Sheet.


Planning Time and Activities

If you have one day . . .

  • Read the background summary (•••, ••, •) and answer the questions.
  • Complete the Classifying Arguments Activity. Discuss which arguments the students find most convincing.
  • For homework, have students read the Key Excerpts from the Majority Opinion and Key Excerpts from the Dissenting Opinion and answer the questions. Follow-up the next day by reviewing the questions with students.

If you have two days . . .

  • Complete all activities for the first day (excluding homework).
  • On the second day, complete Applying Precedents Activity
  • Complete Unmarked Opinions Activity
  • Complete What is Symbolic Speech? When is it Protected?
  • For homework, have students complete the Cartoon Analysis Activity.

If you have three days . . .

  • Complete all activities for the first and second days (excluding homework).
  • On the third day, in advanced classes, complete The Amendment Process (•••) activity
  • Complete Should the U.S. Enact a Flag Desecration Amendment? activity

If you have four days . . .

  • Complete all activities for the first, second, and third days.
  • On the fourth day, complete the Cartoon Analysis Activity
  • Complete Data Analysis: How Do Americans Feel about Flag Desecration Amendment?

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