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United States v. O’Brien

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, O’Brien (Defendant), was convicted for symbolically burning his draft card under a federal statute forbidding the altering of a draft card. His conviction was upheld after the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) found the law constitutional.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. First, a government regulation is sufficiently justified if it is within the constitutional power of the government. Second, if it furthers a substantial or important governmental interest. Third, if the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression. Fourth, if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment constitutional freedoms is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.

    Facts. The Defendant was convicted under Section:462(b)(3) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act (UMTSA) of 1948, amended in 1965 to include the applicable provision that made it an offense to “alter, knowingly destroy, knowingly mutilate” a Selective Service registration certification. Defendant knowingly burned his draft card on the front steps of the local courthouse. The Court of Appeals held the 1965 amendment unconstitutional as a law abridging the freedom of speech.

    Issue. Whether the 1965 Amendment is unconstitutional as applied to Defendant because his act of burning the draft card was protected “symbolic speech” within the First Amendment?
    Whether the draft cards are merely pieces of paper designed only to notify registrants of their registration or classification, to be retained or tossed into the waste basket according to the convenience of the registrant?
    Whether the 1965 Amendment is unconstitutional as enacted because it was intended to “suppress freedom of speech?”

    Held. No. Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversed. It cannot be accepted that there is an endless and limitless variety of conduct that constitutes “speech” whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends to express an idea. However, even if the alleged communicative element of Defendant’s conduct is sufficient to bring into play the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution), it does not necessarily follow that the destruction of a draft card is constitutionally protected activity. First, a government regulation is sufficiently justified if it is within the constitutional power of the government. Second, if it furthers a substantial or important governmental interest. Third, if the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression. Fourth, if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment constitutional freedoms is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest. The 1965 Amendment meets all these requirement
    s. Therefore, the 1965 Amendment is constitutional as applied to Defendant.
    No. Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversed. Although the initial purpose of the draft card is to notify, it serves many other purposes as well. These purposes would be defeated if the card were to be mutilated or destroyed.
    No. Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversed. The purpose of Congress is not a basis for declaring this legislation unconstitutional. Therefore, the 1965 Amendment is constitutional as enacted.

    Discussion. This case creates a symbolic speech test that was used here to uphold the 1965 Amendment to the UMTSA.


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