Spence v. Washington

Facts of the Case

Appellant, Spence, hung his United States flag from the window of his apartment on private property in Seattle, Washington. Affixed to both surfaces of the flag was a large peace symbol fashioned of removable tape. Three Seattle police officers observed the flag and entered the apartment house. Thereafter, the police officers seized the flag and arrested Spence. Spence testified that he displayed the flag to protest the Vietnam War and the killings at Kent State University, and to associate the flag with peace. Upon the conclusion of the jury trial, Spence was convicted under a Washington statute forbidding the exhibition of a United States flag to which was attached or superimposed figures, symbols, or other extraneous material. The Supreme Court of Washington affirmed Spence’s conviction, rejecting the appellant’s contentions that the statute under which he was charged, on its face and as applied, contravened the


Does the Washington statute violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments?


Yes. In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court held that that statute, as applied, violated the First Amendment right to free speech. Justice William O. Douglas concurred, writing that Spence’s display was symbolic speech entitled to constitutional protection. Justice Harry A. Blackmun concurred in the result.Chief Justice Warren E. Burger dissented, arguing that each state should decide how the American flag should be protected. Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented, expressing that states have an interest in protecting the American flag as an important symbol of national unity. Chief Justice Burger and Justice Byron R. White joined in the dissent.

Case Information

  • Citation: 418 US 405 (1974)
  • Argued: Jan 9, 1974
  • Decided Jun 25, 1974