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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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Duration
30-60 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Protests
  • Supreme Court
  • Vietnam War
Grade(s)
  • 7-12
  • College/University

THE CASE

It’s the time of the Vietnam War and you are a young person opposed to the war. You don’t believe your country should be fighting in Vietnam and are not satisfied with the explanation the government has given for why U.S. troops are there in the first place.

Because the war is taking tremendous resources and personnel, the government has put in place a military draft. This means all young men ages 18 to 25 must register their name, address and other information with the government and be ready to go to war if their assigned number is called. You are eligible, and you’re worried you’ll have to fight in a war you deeply disapprove of.

Your friend, who is also opposed to the war, is planning to protest by burning his draft registration card at a public rally. Destroying or mutilating a draft card, which shows that an individual has properly registered with the government, is a crime. But your friend says people around the United States have held similar rallies where young men have gathered to burn their draft cards. He says that doing so is an expression of free speech.

Other rallies have attracted attention from print and broadcast news media, and you’re excited to be part of a larger, visible movement to share a message you feel is important. But you’re also worried about the ramifications of doing something illegal.

Should you publicly burn your draft card?

  1. David O'Brien Teaser Image
    ?

    David O'Brien publicly burned his draft card as a protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He was arrested, and his legal battle wound up going all the way to the Supreme Court.

    Bettmann/Getty Images

    Yes. It’s a powerful way to send a message and should be protected by the First Amendment.

    This issue is serious enough to require dramatic actions, and even if some protesters burn their draft cards, the government can still enforce the draft.

  2. L. Mendel Rivers Teaser Image
    ?

    Lucius Mendel Rivers, a Democrat from South Carolina, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1941 to 1970. He supported the law making it illegal to destroy or mutilate a draft card.

    Charles Tasnadi/The Associated Press

    No. There are other ways to oppose the war that don’t involve destroying a government-issued document.

    If everyone burned their draft cards, it could cause chaos, and the First Amendment should not protect such disruptive actions.

  • How disruptive should an action be for it to fall outside of First Amendment protections?
  • How does the fact that a draft card is a government-issued document affect this debate?
  • How might destroying a draft card affect the government’s ability to carry out the draft?
  • Could destroying a draft card be an effective means of expressing anti-war views? Why or why not?
  • Is it ever worth breaking the law to make a statement about a social or political issue? Explain.
  • In an age of digital technology and online databases, would destroying a draft card have the same meaning and impact today? Why or why not?

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