Lessons in Democracy

By Kathleen Vail

The question before Sarah Roeske's 12th-grade government classes: Should flag burning be protected as symbolic speech under the First Amendment? Students representing the nine Supreme Court justices sit in a row of desks in front of the class. Earnest and serious, Chris Stanley glances at his handwritten notes and speaks first. "It should be considered treason," he says. "Americans don't burn the flag that stands for freedom." Fellow justice Brad Hayes nods in agreement. "It shows disloyalty in a time of war," he says.

"It's offensive, but it should be allowed," counters justice Sally York. "It's a right we are given. It doesn't infringe on the rights of others."

Scattered boos erupt from her classmates. Roeske quiets them with a frown. She'd warned her students before they started that debate could get intense. Although she poses this question to her students each year while teaching about the First Amendment, Roeske knew emotions would be especially strong this year, given the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Among Stafford High School students in this rapidly growing rural Virginia community 50 miles south of Washington, D.C., patriotic fervor was running high.

Would you like to continue reading?
Subscribers please click here to continue reading. If you are not a subscriber, please click here to purchase this article or to obtain a subscription to ASBJ.