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Using Flag Burning to Teach Icons, Symbols, and Speech Acts

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Using Flag Burning to Teach Icons, Symbols, and Speech Acts
Image Credit: 

"Plus" by Andre, "Fire" by Nick Abrams, "Equal" by Edward Boatman, and "Light Bulb" by Chris Brunskill, all from The Noun Project; (Flag Icon Is in Public Domain)

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students come to class having read read an analysis focused upon the importance of the seemingly minor distinctions between "icons" and "symbols" in the context of Texas v Johnson, the definitive Supreme Court case regarding the extent to which an American flag and/or the burning thereof is “speech,” and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

The class then explores the definitions of- and distinctions between- icons and symbols, analyzing the assigned reading’s contention that the majority and dissent opinions of the sharply divided court actually comes down to whether a flag in this context constitutes an icon or a symbol.  Students then logon to classroom computers in pairs to find an example of one symbol and one icon.  Students post their examples onto our Canvas discussion board with brief explanations as to why their choices do, in fact, constitute icons or symbols.

As time allows, the instructor puts the Canvas discussion page on the projector, and student postings are analyzed together as a class.  The instructor assigns a brief follow-up reading.

Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Literature: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Required Materials: 

Vergobbi, David J. "Texas v. Johnson." Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions. Ed. Richard A. Parker. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama, 2003. 281-97. Print.

Classroom with enough computers to accommodate all students at two students per computer.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Speaking as generally as possible, this lesson plan seeks to help students think about the many different forms of rhetoric that exist aside from the written and spoken word.  More specifically, the plan seeks to establish the ways in which actions, objects and images can constitute rhetoric.  The definitions and uses of icons, symbols, and what the Supreme Court calls “speech acts” as rhetoric are then explored in the specific context of the definitive Supreme Court decision on the issue of flag burning, Texas v. Johnson (1989).

“Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions” is exactly what the title suggests.  It is organized by chapters, with each chapter authored by a different attorney, judge, or legal scholar of note.  Each chapter consists of a communications-based analysis of a different Supreme Court case, the vast majority of which revolve around First Amendment issues.  A copy of the chapter entitled “Texas v. Johnson” from the collection is posted on Canvas several days before class, with instructions to read and make note of any questions they have while reading.

After a general class discussion on the reading, we focus our attention upon the primary contention of the article’s author.  Specifically, that the conflicting opinions among the Supreme Court justices in this case came down to whether a particular justice viewed the burning flag as an icon or as a symbol, even though the justices were not aware that this is where their disagreement was founded.

The class discussion is directed in a quasi-Socratic method of instruction, with the instructor seeking to elicit contradictions among student responses to questions pertaining what it is that makes this case so nuanced and multi-layered.  The instructor asks a question outright: “If a person just douses something in kerosene and lights it on fire without saying or writing a word, are they “speaking?”  Again, a Socratic method is useful: asking students questions such as the above and challenging their answers with further questions and new contingencies lends itself to students rethinking their visceral responses to the original question, resulting in the class as a whole coming up with a more inclusive yet refined working definition of “speech.”  We look at explicit and implicit reasoning in the Supreme Court’s analysis of the same question(s).  Students are reminded that they’re allowed to disagree with the reasoning of a Supreme Court justice and that they shouldn’t be shy about challenging any of their statements and/or assumptions.

As we continue thinking about non-verbal rhetoric, the instructor directs the class to the portion of the assigned reading where the author begins elaborating upon his claim that whether the justices thought flag burning was speech or not came down to whether they treated the flag as an icon or a symbol.  Given that even the Supreme Court wasn’t able to make sense of this icon/symbol distinction (or so says the article’s author), it should come as no surprise that students struggle with the nuance as well.  Rhetoricians, linguists and the like disagree amongst themselves as to the precise definitions of these terms, but I tried to make the broad explanation that both icons and symbols are types of signs.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

There is no need to read the actual Supreme Court opinion in Texas v. Johnson.  The instructor should, of course, have a firm grasp of the analysis of the case that the class has been assigned to read.

I also found it very helpful to spend time refining my own understanding of icons, symbols, signs and the like.  There is much grey area and a fair amount of disagreement on some aspects of these concepts.

Instructions For Students: 

Before class: Read the article posted on Canvas, making note of questions they have as they arise.

During class: Following class discussion, logon to the classroom computers in pairs, and find one example of an icon, and one example of a symbol, and to post both to the Canvas discussion board, along with brief explanations of their choices.

After class:  Read a short “article” (in comic form) that will be available on Canvas after class.  Create a short posting as to whether this follow-up reading helped clarify the symbol/icon distinction, and the way in which it did so.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

This lesson went over better than I ever expected.  Although looking at these issues in the context of a Supreme Court decision might seem uniquely befitting a Rhetoric of Law course (which is what I teach), the issues discussed are of broad interest, and students don’t have to actually read any judicial decisions.

I would recommend pulling up the Canvas discussion page on the projector, and going through a few of student postings for as long as time allows (approximately 10 minutes).

Additional Resources: 

The Noun Project- An excellent site full of simple icons and symbols to peruse.  The images at the top of this lesson plan are all from the Noun Project.

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