Fire, Metaphor, and Constitutional Myth-Making

Robert Tsai, American University


From the standpoint of traditional legal thought, metaphor is at best a dash of poetry adorning lawyerly analysis, and at worst an unjustifiable distraction from what is actually at stake in a legal contest. By contrast, in the eyes of those who view law as a close relative of ordinary language, metaphor is a basic building block of human understanding. This article accepts that metaphor helps us to comprehend a court’s decision. At the same time, it contends that metaphor plays a special role in the realm of constitutional discourse. Metaphor in constitutional law not only reinforces doctrinal categories, but also promotes acceptance of interpretive prerogative and creates sustainable constitutional subcultures, with their attendant myths, counter-narratives, hero figures and villains, and sacred mantras. It links citizens to governing institutions, and bridges diverse communities of interest. Metaphor is bound up with the motivations of the Justices and the development of legal doctrine, and marks the steady ascendancy of the American Supreme Court to the center of cultural and legal life. To illustrate these themes, the article examines the appearance of the fire metaphor and fire-inspired legal sayings in the Court’s free expression rulings over time, drawing on the work of cultural anthropologists, legal theorists, and cognitive linguists. Launched in early speech decisions involving socialist ideology, and reinvented in more recent cases involving cross-burning and the Internet, the fire motif has had a long pedigree. By tracing the Court’s invocation of fire across the decades, we can uncover a wealth of information about the interaction between rule and myth, legal doctrine and symbol. Born in the early part of the Twentieth Century during turbulent times, the fire metaphor has enjoyed an integral role in the construction of our free speech folklore. Across historical epochs and amid social upheavals, it has alternately collaborated with and jousted with other free speech metaphors and icons. The curious life of this remarkable, though often overlooked, language composition tells us much about the institution of the Court, our modes of constitutional discourse and myth-making, and the interactive nature of legal change.