Summary of US v. O’Brien
Facts: P burned his draft card in the steps of the courthouse. He was arrested and convicted under a statute barring knowingly destroying or knowingly mutilating a draft registration certificate.
Procedural History: P was convicted. Circuit court held the statute unconstitutional because there was already a different statute barring non-possession of a registration certificate.
Issue: Is burning your draft card constitutionally protected?
Holding: No, because the state has an independent interest in ensuring the smooth functioning of the draft system.
Reasoning: Not all conduct can be labeled speech just because the person engaged in it intends to express an idea. The court has held that when speech and nonspeech elements are combined in the same conduct, a sufficiently important governmental interest in regulating the nonspeech element can justify incidental limitations on 1st amendment freedoms.
A sufficiently important governmental interest is one that is unrelated to the suppression of free expression and one that is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of the interest is good enough to restrict symbolic speech.
Here, the government’s interest was not simply to suppress speech aspects of the conduct; it had an independent interest of facilitating the smooth functioning of the draft system. Destroying the draft cards impedes on the smooth functioning of the draft system. Since the interest is unrelated to suppressing anti-war views and since there’s no less restrictive means of advancing this interest, then the statute is valid.