Marshwiggle wrote: Also, I'd note that the combustion of a physical textile has no relation to the spoken or written word.. surely an english major does not find burning and speaking synonomous. I respectfully submit that we're confusing "freedom of expression" with "freedom of speech" here.
It seems that we have a problem of definition here. It's my fault; I was using an idea from my current reading (discourse analysis; real fun stuff... urgh) and didn't define it very well. Take a look at the comment Marshwiggle was responding to: It is a reconfiguration of a physical symbol, and that, to me, is a speech act.
Notice that I did not claim it was "speech." Rather, I claimed that it was a speech act (though I admit that I am taking the linguist's notion of "speech act" a bit further than more traditional theorists do).
A speech act consists of a physical action that makes use of a symbolic system common both to the actor and observer(s) of said action (this normally involves the voice and a linguistic system). The action is normally undertaken for the purpose of affecting the behavior of the observer(s) of said act.
For instance, if a mother were to walk into her child's room and say, "this place is a mess" within the child's hearing, the child would be expected to either provide some explanation or begin cleaning the room (or at the very least, provide assent to cleaning the room at a later date).
Another example of a speech act would be a preacher standing on a street corner holding a cross and saying, "There is salvation through no other name! Come to Jesus!" The cross, though not a part of the vocative utterance of the preacher, is an essential part of his message -- it is intended to remind the hearer(s) of Christ's death for sin on a cross. His holding of it serves an important, irreplacable rhetorical purpose and therefore would be considered under my schema as a speech act.
What I'm arguing is that the burning of a flag should be every bit as covered under the First Amendment as the preacher's right to hold that cross on the street corner.
No, the burning of a flag does not involve formal linguistic systems, written or spoken. Nevertheless, it still is a symbolic method of communication with conventional precedents and deeply inscribed social and cultural meanings. Thus, I would argue that it is a speech act even though it does not entail utterance or inscription of language.
The burning of a flag is a significant rhetorical move whose effect cannot be achieved in any other way. It is thus an abridgement of free speech to prevent flags from being burnt.