1974 June 25

U.S. Flag with Peace Symbol is Protected Speech

 

On May 10, 1970, to protest the Vietnam War, a college student (Spence) hung an American flag upside down outside his apartment window. He had attached a peace symbol to the flag with removable tape. He was convicted under a Washington State law forbidding attaching anything to the U.S. flag. The Supreme Court on this day, in Spence v. Washington, reversed his conviction on the grounds that it infringed on his freedom of expression.

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).

The Court: “He displayed it as a flag of his country in a way closely analogous to the manner in which flags have always been used to convey ideas. Moreover, his message was direct, likely to be understood, and within the contours of the First Amendment.”

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

Learn more about symbolic speech: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/tag/symbolic-speech

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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