Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether a conviction for affixing a peace symbol to a United States flag under a state statute prohibiting flag desecration violates the First Amendment.


The Supreme Court of the United States held that the conviction was unconstitutional, reversing the judgment of the Washington Supreme Court.


Harold Omand Spence, a college student, affixed a peace symbol to his privately-owned United States flag and placed it upside down in a window on private property. He did so to express that he believed the United States stood for peace and as a response to public uproar regarding recent killings at Kent State University and the invasion of Cambodia. He was convicted under a Washington state statute that prohibited displaying the flag with items affixed to it, like the peace symbol Spence placed on his flag.

Importance of Case

This decision led to the creation of the Spence test for determining whether particular conduct is protected expression. The two-pronged test requires: (1) “An intent to convey a particularized message” and that (2) “the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.”

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