United States v. O'Brien
Annotate this Case
391 U.S. 367 (1968)
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U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968)
United States v. O'Brien
Argued January 24, 1968
Decided May 27, 1968
391 U.S. 367
O'Brien burned his Selective Service registration certificate before a sizable crowd in order to influence others to adopt his anti-war beliefs. He was indicted, tried, and convicted for violating 50 U.S.C.App. § 462(b), a part of the Universal Military Training and Service Act, subdivision (3) of which applies to any person "who forges, alters, knowingly destroys, knowingly mutilates, or in any manner changes any such certificate . . . ," the words italicized herein having been added by amendment in 1965. The District Court rejected O'Brien's argument that the amendment was unconstitutional because it was enacted to abridge free speech and served no legitimate legislative purpose. The Court of Appeals held the 1965 Amendment unconstitutional under the First Amendment as singling out for special treatment persons engaged in protests, on the ground that conduct under the 1965 Amendment was already punishable, since a Selective Service System regulation required registrants to keep their registration certificates in their "personal possession at all times," 32 CFR § 1617.1, and willful violation of regulations promulgated under the Act was made criminal by 50 U.S.C.App. § 462(b)(6). The court, however, upheld O'Brien's conviction under § 462(b)(6), which, in its view, made violation of the nonpossession regulation a lesser included offense of the crime defined by the 1965 Amendment.
(a) The 1965 Amendment plainly does not abridge free speech on its face. P. 391 U. S. 375.
(b) When "speech" and "nonspeech" elements are combined in the same course of conduct, a sufficiently important governmental interest in regulating the nonspeech element can justify incidental limitations on First Amendment freedoms. P. 391 U. S. 376.
(c) A governmental regulation is sufficiently justified if it is within the constitutional power of the Government and furthers
an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment freedom is no greater than is essential to that interest. The 1965 Amendment meets all these requirements. P. 391 U. S. 377.
(d) The 1965 Amendment came within Congress'."broad and sweeping" power to raise and support armies and make all laws necessary to that end. P. 391 U. S. 377.
(e) The registration certificate serves purposes in addition to initial notification, e.g., it proves that the described individual has registered for the draft; facilitates communication between registrants and local boards, and provides a reminder that the registrant must notify his local board of changes in address or status. The regulatory scheme involving the certificates includes clearly valid prohibitions against alteration, forgery, or similar deceptive misuse. Pp. 391 U. S. 378-380.
(f) The preexistence of the nonpossession regulation does not negate Congress' clear interest in providing alternative statutory avenues of prosecution to assure its interest in preventing destruction of the Selective Service certificates. P. 391 U. S. 380.
(g) The governmental interests protected by the 1965 Amendment and the nonpossession regulation, though overlapping, are not identical. Pp. 391 U. S. 380-381.
(h) The 1965 Amendment is a narrow and precisely drawn provision which specifically protects the Government's substantial interest in an efficient and easily administered system for raising armies. Pp. 391 U. S. 381-382.
(i) O'Brien was convicted only for the willful frustration of that governmental interest. The noncommunicative impact of his conduct for which he was convicted makes his case readily distinguishable from Stromberg v. California, 283 U. S. 359 (1931). P. 391 U. S. 382.
2. The 1965 Amendment is constitutional as enacted. Pp. 391 U. S. 382-385.
376 F.2d 538, vacated; judgment and sentence of District Court reinstated.