The War And U.s. Law
The war provoked many legal and constitutional controversies in the United States. Though the U.S. Supreme Court refused to decide whether the war was constitutional, it did rule on several war-related issues. In United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 88 S. Ct. 1673, 20 L. Ed. 2d 672 (1968), the Court upheld the conviction of David Paul O'Brien for violating a 1965 amendment to the Selective Service Act (50 U.S.C.A. App. § 451 et seq.) prohibiting any draft registrant from knowingly destroying or mutilating his draft card. The Court rejected O'Brien's contention that his burning of his draft card was SYMBOLIC SPEECH protected by the FIRST AMENDMENT. In TINKER V. DES MOINES INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969), however, the Court ruled that high school students had the First Amendment right to wear black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
In WELSH V. UNITED STATES, 398 U.S. 333, 90 S. Ct. 1792, 26 L. Ed. 2d 308 (1970), the Court held that a person could be exempted from compulsory military service based on purely moral or ethical beliefs against war.
One of the most significant Court decisions of the Vietnam War period involved the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified government report on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Nixon administration sought to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing excerpts from the study on the ground that publication would hurt national security interests. In NEW YORK TIMES V. UNITED STATES, 403 U.S. 713, 91 S. Ct. 2140, 29 L. Ed. 2d 822 (1971), the Supreme Court, by a 6–3 vote, held that the government's efforts to block publication amounted to an unconstitutional PRIOR RESTRAINT.