In 1978 I was teaching a class called "Law and Justice in America," and on the first day I handed out the course outline. At the end of the hour one of the students came up to the desk. He was a little older than the others. He said, "I notice in your course outline you will be discussing the case of U.S vs. O'Brien. When we come to that I would like to say something about it."
I was a bit surprised, but glad that a student would take such initiative.
I said, "Sure. What's your name?"
He said, "O'Brien. David O'Brien."
It was, indeed, his case. On the morning of March 31, I966, while American troops were pouring into Vietnam and U.S. planes were bombing day and night, David O'Brien and three friends climbed the steps of the courthouse in South Boston where they lived - a mostly Irish, working-class neighborhood - held up their draft registration cards before a crowd that had assembled, and set the cards afire.
According to Chief Justice Earl Warren, who rendered the Supreme Court decision in the case: "Immediately after the burning, members of the crowd began attacking O'Brien," and he was ushered to safety by an FBI agent. As O'Brien told the story to my class, FBI agents pulled him into the courthouse, threw him into a closet, and gave him a few blows as they arrested him.
Chief Justice Warren's decision said, "O'Brien stated to FBI agents that he had burned his registration certificate because of his beliefs, knowing that he was violating federal law." His intention was clear. He wanted to express to the community his strong feelings about the war in Vietnam, trying to call attention, by a dramatic act, to the mass killing our government was engaged in there. The burning of his draft card would get special attention precisely because it was against the law, and so he would risk imprisonment to make his statement.
O'Brien claimed in court that his act, although in violation of the draft law, was protected by the free speech provision of the Constitution. But the Supreme Court decided that the government's need to regulate the draft overcame his right to free expression, and he went to prison.
O'Brien had engaged in an act of civil disobedience - the deliberate violation of a law for a social purpose. To violate a law for individual gain, for a private purpose, is an ordinary criminal act; it is not civil disobedience. Some acts fall in both categories, as in the case of a mother stealing bread to feed her children, or neighbors stopping the eviction of a family that hadn't been able to pay the rent. Although limited to one family's need, they carry a larger message to the society about its failures.
In either instance, the law is being disobeyed, which sets up strong emotional currents in a population that has been taught obedience from childhood.
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