1966 March 31

Anti-war Protesters Burn Draft Cards, Head to Supreme Court

 

David Paul O’Brien and three others burned draft cards on the steps of the South Boston Courthouse on this day to protest the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson had signed a bill making draft-card burning illegal on August 30, 1965. O’Brien’s conviction under the law went to the Supreme Court and, in United States. v. O’Brien, decided on May 27, 1968, the Court held that draft-card burning was not a form of political expression protected by the First Amendment. The decision is considered to be an exception to the Warren Court’s general practice of protecting free speech. The Vietnam War created a number of civil liberties crises. They include (1) the lack of a Congressional Declaration of War as required by the Constitution (June 3, 1970); (2) threats to freedom of the press in the Pentagon Papers case (June 30, 1971); (3) spying on the anti-war movement by the CIA (August 15, 1967); (4) threats to freedom of expression, for example high school student protests (February 24, 1969); censorship of television programs (February 25, 1968); and directly and indirectly some of the events that led to the Watergate Scandal (May 9, 1969; January 27, 1972).

Chief Justice Earl Warren for the Court: “We cannot accept the view that an apparently limitless variety of conduct can be labeled ‘speech’ whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea.”

See newsreel footage of draft card burning (not necessarily O’Brien): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gV–rAMQoQk

Learn more about the anti-Vietnam War movement: Thomas Powers, The War at Home: Vietnam and the American People, 1964–1968 (1973)

Read first-hand accounts of 1960s-1970s radicals: Clara Bingham, Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost its Mind and Found its Soul (2016)

Watch a documentary on how the Vietnam War affected America: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGeFPzFNkQg

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