first amendment

I sometimes think that I am from a different era…one where people didn’t use so many obscenities. In reality, I am from that era, because on June 24, 1957, when I was just a 14 months old, the United States Supreme Court ruled that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees free speech and freedom of the press. Call me old fashioned, but when I hear someone screaming at their own child, using every obscenity known to man, it makes me cringe. Calling our children such horrible names, can’t possibly be a good way to teach them self esteem. The United States Supreme Court agreed, according to Roth v. United States, a case decided in 1957. Samuel Roth of New York City was convicted of mailing obscene materials. On appeal his conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court, which held that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The court ruled that “material is obscene if, to the average person applying contemporary community standards, the dominant overall theme appeals to prurient interest.”

These days, we are bombarded with obscenities and profanities…everything from the f-bomb to the names we call people we don’t particularly like. Television shows use obscenities on just about every show, and our children are growing up to think that not only is it ok to call people such names, but its ok to be constantly angry…and to let everyone around you know it. It seems to me that as all the obscenities became commonplace, so did anger. And anger breeds hate, which in turn breeds things like road rage, bullying, and even murder.

Now, that we have the freedom to say the things that we do, another problem has come to light…hate speech. What is hate speech? It never used to be a thing, although it did exist…it just didn’t have a name, per se. So we have somehow come full circle, to a degree. While the Supreme Court used to say that we can’t use obscenities or profanities, and then suddenly we could, now we find ourselves with the necessity to decide if something said is “hate speech” or not, and if it is, then has the right to free speech been denied. Why is one thing different than the other? Believe me, I don’t like either kind of talk…hate or obscene, but if one is “illegal” then shouldn’t the other also be “illegal.” Or, should we have any say at all? It is a vicious circle to be sure. I guess that in reality, it is a moral issue. We have slipped so far from the moral values of our ancestors that our world almost doesn’t even resemble that of the era I was raised in, and certainly bears no resemblance to the era of our ancestors. While I can’t say exactly how to solve this dilemma, I think that maybe the best solution lies within each of us. Maybe we need to walk away from the situations that make us angry. Maybe we need to be more careful of the speech and behaviors that we show to our children. Maybe we need to teach our children that other people have a right to their opinion too, and it is not up to us to be their verbal police. Maybe we need to take offense less, and show compassion more. No matter what the ultimate solution is, there is no doubt in my mind that it begins in the human heart.

Registering for the draft is a requirement when a young man reaches 18 years of age. There is no draft in the United States anymore, but by registering the young men, the government could hold a draft, should a war bring such a need. During the Vietnam War, there were a lot of people who felt that the United States shouldn’t be in the war. Many young men didn’t want any part of it, and they decided to protest the war by burning their draft cards. Of course, this was forbidden by law, but they didn’t care. They were willing to take the chance, if it meant that they could avoid going to war.

By May 1965 young men were protesting by burning their draft cards with greater frequency around the United States. To limit this kind of protest…in August 1965 the United States Congress enacted a law to broaden draft card violations to punish anyone who “knowingly destroys, knowingly mutilates” his draft card. Then, on October 15, 1965, in New York, David Miller, a young Catholic pacifist, became the first US war protestor to burn his draft card at a protest rally, in direct violation of a recently passed law forbidding such acts. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation later arrested him. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but that did not stop the protesting or the burning of draft cards. Subsequently, 46 men were indicted for burning their draft cards at various rallies, and four major court cases were heard. One of them, United States v. O’Brien, was argued before the Supreme Court. The act of draft card burning was defended as a symbolic form of free speech, a constitutional right guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court decided against the draft card burners. It determined that the federal law was justified and that it was unrelated to the freedom of speech. This outcome was criticized by legal experts.

From 1965 to 1973, few men in the United States were convicted of burning their draft cards, and some 25,000 went unpunished. I suppose it was difficult to wrap our minds around the idea imprisonment for our young men over a protest. Still, it was illegal. And something had to be done. Before 1965, the act of burning a draft card was already prohibited by US statute and the registrant was required to carry the card at all times. Any destruction of the card was against the law. Also, it was entirely possible for a young man to destroy his draft card and still answer the call to service by appearing at an induction center and serving in the military. It also seems to me that if they had registered, that the government also had a copy of the registration, so if they were going to be drafted, having or not having the card was really a formality. And it was possible for a registrant to faithfully keep his card on his person but fail to appear when called. The draft card burning was an act of protest against the war, more than it was a way to avoid the draft. Still, the image of draft card burning was powerful, and very influential in American politics and culture. Photos appeared in magazines, newspapers and on television. It was proof of a political divide between those who backed the United States government and its military goals and those who were against any United States involvement in Vietnam. With the political upheaval, Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968 on a platform based largely on putting an end to the draft, hoping to put an end to protesters burning their cards. As president, Nixon indeed did end the draft in 1973, rendering the symbolic act of draft card burning unnecessary, and registering just a requirement.

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