The First Amendment took center stage in anti-war demonstrations 49 years ago this week, as the first draft card was burned in public amid nationwide protests decrying U.S. involvement in the escalating Vietnam conflict.
In August 1965, Congress passed a law prohibiting the willful destruction of draft cards. Two months later, a young Catholic pacifist, David Miller, burned his draft card in front of a crowd a rally in New York – part of the Vietnam Day Committee’s “International Days of Protest” Oct. 15-16. Miller was later arrested by the FBI and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Despite the law, draft card burning became a common form of anti-war protest, even though numerous court decisions – including the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. O’Brien – ruled that the law did not violate protesters’ First Amendment rights to free speech.
When Newseum curators were collecting artifacts for “The Boomer List” exhibit, they wanted to include a draft card from the era as a defining symbol of the boomer generation’s story. But they were having a hard time finding one to display. On a hunch, director of collections Carrie Christoffersen called her father, who promptly unearthed his draft card and mailed it to the Newseum, still in its plastic wallet sleeve. Why did he have it after all these years? Christoffersen said her father told her, half-jokingly, “It’s a federal document! You can’t get rid of that kind of thing.”