Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether burning a draft card as part of an anti-war protest is symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.


The Supreme Court upheld O’Brien’s conviction.


O’Brien burnt his draft card on the steps of a South Boston courthouse in protest of the Vietnam War and was found in violation of the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948.

Importance of Case

The Court articulated a test to determine whether a regulation that impacts expressive conduct is justified, holding: “We think it clear that a government regulation is sufficiently justified if it is within the constitutional power of the Government; if it furthers an important or substantial governmental interest; if the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression; and if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment freedoms is not greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.” The Court held that the Universal Military Training and Service Act met the conditions of the test and was therefore constitutional.

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