Spence v. Washington

PETITIONER:Harold Omand Spence
LOCATION: Spence Residence

DOCKET NO.: 72-1690
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: Washington Supreme Court

CITATION: 418 US 405 (1974)
ARGUED: Jan 09, 1974
DECIDED: Jun 25, 1974

James E. Warme – for appellee
Peter Greenfield – for appellant

Facts of the case

The police of the city of Seattle, WA noticed that one of the residents hung an American flag near the window of his apartment with the symbol of peace depicted on it. At that time, state laws forbade the use of a flag if it contained drawings, inscriptions, or was otherwise modified. The police went into the house where Spence lived, arrested him and seized the flag. When the case was examined by the court of the first instance, he was accused of improper use, and desecration of the national flag was found guilty and sentenced to a fine and imprisonment for 10 days. This decision was revised in appellate order, and the punishment was reviewed, however, the case was transferred to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court completely overturned the first two decisions. In addition, it recognized Washington’s law as unconstitutional, and the actions of the court and the police were regarded as an attempt to impede the realization of the right to freedom of speech and expression. The court also ruled that the flag could be a means of expressing one’s message and in this case, it was not desecrated since it was called for peace both inside the country and beyond it. This judicial decision provided an opportunity for an expanded interpretation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, and also broadened the understanding of the concept of freedom of speech, expression and manifestation of patriotism at the legislative level.