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Keywords:

  • free speech;
  • flag burning;
  • Australia;
  • New Zealand;
  • United States

Flag use generates passionate debates that fundamentally turn on questions of the appropriate extent and limits of freedom of speech. The national flag is a natural and forceful medium with which to express one's views about a nation. Yet its use in this way also generates controversy and emotionally charged reactions. The purpose of this article is to assess attitudes in political culture towards flag use in the context of wider freedom of speech considerations. By analysing events in Australia, the United States and New Zealand, the article argues that public responses to flag use as a medium of political expression demonstrate a flawed understanding of the meaning, import and effect of freedom of speech and its limits. This has significant implications, exposing the extent of fragility of freedom of speech on controversial issues, and its persistence despite differences between jurisdictions in the manner and extent of free speech protection.