• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court’s ruling limited the concept of symbolic speech and affirmed the distinction between thought and action in expression cases.

During the Vietnam War, some students, including David O’Brien, protested the war by burning their draft cards (selective service registration certificates). O’Brien, convicted for destroying a document he was required to keep, challenged the conviction, claiming his action was symbolic speech. By a 7-1 vote, the Supreme Court upheld O’Brien’s conviction. In the opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl WarrenWarren, Earl;O’Brien, United States v.[OBrien, United States v.] wrote that the government has a substantial interest in continuing the selective service system. The Court stated that there were limits to how far it would extend symbolic speech protections. One unprotected area involved violations of otherwise valid laws. Although the Court believed that the government’s right to maintain a selective service system outweighed the incidental limitation on free speech, Justice William O. Douglas dissented on free speech grounds.Symbolic speech;O’Brien, United States v.[OBrien, United States v.]

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Categories: History