United States v. O'Brien 1968

Author:Daniel Brannen, Richard Hanes, Elizabeth Shaw

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Petitioner: United States of America

Respondent: David Paul O'Brien

Petitioner's Claim: That a federal law prohibiting the destruction of draft cards did not violate the freedom of speech.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Erwin N. Griswold, U.S. Solicitor General

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Marvin M. Karpatkin

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Abe Fortas, John Marshall Harlan II, Potter Stewart, Earl Warren, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: William O. Douglas (Thurgood Marshall did not participate)

Date of Decision: May 27, 1968

Decision: The Supreme Court upheld the federal statute and O'Brien's conviction for violating it.

Significance: O'Brien limited protection for symbolic speech under the First Amendment.

The Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 until 1974, was a battle between North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam wanted to unite the country under communism. South Vietnam resisted with help from the United States. By the end of 1965, there were 180,000 American troops fighting in Vietnam.

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Many anti-war demonstrators showed their displeasure with the government during the Vietnam War by burning their draft cards. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation.

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Although the war was ten years old in 1965, there was no sign that North Vietnam would be defeated. Many Americans became opposed to the war. Some thought a civil war in Vietnam was not America's concern. They were angry to see young Americans die while fighting for another country. Others were generally opposed to human beings killing each other. Protests against the war became common in America. In United States v. O'Brien, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether one form of protest—burning draft cards—was protected by the freedom of speech.

Burning mad

The United States built an army to fight in Vietnam using the Selective Service System. It required all American males to register with a local draft board when they reached the age of eighteen. Each young man received a registration certificate and a classification certificate. The certificates were commonly called draft cards. They contained important information, including a reminder that registrants had to notify their local draft board of address changes. The local draft boards used the addresses to notify young men when they had been selected...

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