1968 April 26

“Fuck the Draft”: Robert Paul Cohen Arrested

 

To protest the Vietnam War, Robert Paul Cohen walked through the Los Angeles County Court House on this day with the words, “FUCK THE DRAFT. STOP THE WAR,” on the back of his jacket. He was arrested and later convicted of disturbing the peace, but the Supreme Court reversed his conviction in Cohen v. California on June 7, 1971. Justice John Marshall Harlan, II’s majority opinion emphasized the emotional and expressive nature of speech.

In addition to this case, 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).

Justice John Marshall Harlan, II for the Court: “This case may seem at first blush too inconsequential to find its way into our books, but the issue it presents is of no small constitutional significance. . . Much linguistic expression serves a dual communicative function: it conveys not only ideas capable of relatively precise, detached explication, but otherwise inexpressible emotions as well. In fact, We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which, practically speaking, may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated.”

Learn more about freedom of speech: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/category/speech

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)

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