Wednesday, October 12, 2011


"On the morning of March 31, 1966, David Paul O'Brien and three companions burned their Selective Service registration certificates on the steps of the South Boston Courthouse. A sizable crowd, including several agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, witnessed the event. Immediately after the burning, members of the crowd began attacking O'Brien and his companions. An FBI agent ushered O'Brien to safety inside the courthouse. After he was advised of his right to counsel and to silence, O'Brien stated to FBI agents that he had burned his registration certificate because of his beliefs, knowing that he was violating federal law. He produced the charred remains of the certificate, which, with his consent, were photographed. For this act, O'Brien was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. He did not contest the fact that he had burned the certificate. He stated in argument to the jury that he burned the certificate publicly to influence others to adopt his anti-war beliefs, as he put it, "so that other people would reevaluate their positions with Selective Service, with the armed forces, and reevaluate their place in the culture of today, to hopefully consider my position." [5]

The court ruled 7–1 against O'Brien. In the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Warren wrote that while the First Amendment does protect freedom of speech, it does not protect all things that may extraneously be labeled 'symbolic speech'. As such, O'Brien's protest was not protected because the United States had a compelling interest in preventing the destruction or mutilation of draft cards. To help himself and future justices determine what may be protected under the free speech clause, he developed a series of requirements that laws must meet in order to stay out of conflict with the First, and thus be considered constitutional, known now as the O'Brien test

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