Wooley v. Maynard

430 U.S. 705

Case Year: 1977

Case Ruling: 7-2, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Burger

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Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brennan, Marshall, Powell, Stevens, Stuart, White


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Rehnquist

Joiner(s): Blackmun

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: White in Part


3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Beginning in 1969, New Hampshire required that all noncommercial vehicles display license plates that included the state motto, "Live Free or Die." It became a misdemeanor to cover or obscure any part of the license plate. George and Maxine Maynard were Jehovah's Witnesses, who considered the motto to be in conflict with their religious beliefs, and objected to displaying it on their cars. As a consequence, the Maynards covered that portion of their license plates. They did not cover the identifying numbers and letters.

On November 27, 1974, police gave Mr. Maynard a traffic citation for obscuring his license plate. In court he pleaded not guilty and explained his religious objections. The judge was sympathetic, but found him guilty and imposed $25 fine. The judge, however, ruled that Maynard would not have to pay the fine if he complied with the law. On December 28, 1974, Maynard was again cited for violating the license plate law, and he was charged with a third violation on January 3, 1975. The judge sentenced him to a fine of $50 and six months in jail, but then suspended the jail portion of the sentence on the condition that Maynard pay the fines for the three violations. Maynard refused to do so on religious grounds. The judge then sentenced Maynard to fifteen days in jail, a sentence that he served in full.

The Maynards then filed suit, asking that the state be enjoined from enforcing the license plate law against them on the grounds that it violated their constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. A three-judge federal district court agreed with the Maynards and ordered the state to refrain from further arrests. The state appealed.



The issue on appeal is whether the State of New Hampshire may constitutionally enforce criminal sanctions against persons who cover the motto "Live Free or Die" on passenger vehicle license plates because that motto is repugnant to their moral and religious beliefs....

Appellants argue that the District Court was precluded from exercising jurisdiction in this case by the principles of equitable restraint enunciated in Younger v. Harris (1971). In Younger the Court recognized that principles of judicial economy, as well as proper state-federal relations, preclude federal courts from exercising equitable jurisdiction to enjoin ongoing state prosecutions.... However, when a genuine threat of prosecution exists, a litigant is entitled to resort to a federal forum to seek redress for an alleged deprivation of federal rights....

... [T]hree successive prosecutions were undertaken against Mr. Maynard in the span of five weeks. This is quite different from a claim for federal equitable relief when a prosecution is threatened for the first time. The threat of repeated prosecutions in the future against both him and his wife, and the effect of such a continuing threat on their ability to perform the ordinary tasks of daily life which require an automobile, is sufficient to justify injunctive relief. Cf. Douglas v. City of Jeannette (1943). We are therefore unwilling to say that the District Court was limited to granting declaratory relief. Having determined that the District Court was not required to stay its hand as to either appellee, we turn to the merits of the Maynards' claim. The District Court held that by covering up the state motto "Live Free or Die" on his automobile license plate, Mr. Maynard was engaging in symbolic speech and that "New Hampshire's interest in the enforcement of its defacement statute is not sufficient to justify the restriction on [appellee's] constitutionally protected expression."... We find it unnecessary to pass on the "symbolic speech" issue, since we find more appropriate First Amendment grounds to affirm the judgment of the District Court. We turn instead to what in our view is the essence of appellees' objection to the requirement that they display the motto "Live Free or Die" on their automobile license plates. This is succinctly summarized in the statement made by Mr. Maynard in his affidavit filed with the District Court:

"I refuse to be coerced by the State into advertising a slogan which I find morally, ethically, religiously and politically abhorrent." App. 5.

We are thus faced with the question of whether the State may constitutionally require an individual to participate in the dissemination of an ideological message by displaying it on his private property in a manner and for the express purpose that it be observed and read by the public. We hold that the State may not do so. We begin with the proposition that the right of freedom of thought protected by the First Amendment against state action includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all. See Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). A system which secures the right to proselytize religious, political, and ideological causes must also guarantee the concomitant right to decline to foster such concepts. The right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of the broader concept of "individual freedom of mind." Id., at 637. This is illustrated by the recent case of Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo(1974), where we held unconstitutional a Florida statute placing an affirmative duty upon newspapers to publish the replies of political candidates whom they had criticized. We concluded that such a requirement deprived a newspaper of the fundamental right to decide what to print or omit....

The Court in Barnette was faced with a state statute which required public school students to participate in daily public ceremonies by honoring the flag both with words and traditional salute gestures. In overruling its prior decision inMinersville District v. Gobitis (1940), the Court held that "a ceremony so touching matters of opinion and political attitude may [not] be imposed upon the individual by official authority under powers committed to any political organization under our Constitution." Compelling the affirmative act of a flag salute involved a more serious infringement upon personal liberties than the passive act of carrying the state motto on a license plate, but the difference is essentially one of degree. Here, as in Barnette, we are faced with a state measure which forces an individual, as part of his daily life--indeed constantly while his automobile is in public view--to be an instrument for fostering public adherence to an ideological point of view he finds unacceptable. In doing so, the State "invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control."...

New Hampshire's statute in effect requires that appellees use their private property as a "mobile billboard" for the State's ideological message--or suffer a penalty, as Maynard already has. As a condition to driving an automobile--a virtual necessity for most Americans--the Maynards must display "Live Free or Die" to hundreds of people each day. The fact that most individuals agree with the thrust of New Hampshire's motto is not the test; most Americans also find the flag salute acceptable. The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority and to refuse to foster, in the way New Hampshire commands, an idea they find morally objectionable.

Identifying the Maynards' interests as implicating First Amendment protections does not end our inquiry however. We must also determine whether the State's countervailing interest is sufficiently compelling to justify requiring appellees to display the state motto on their license plates.... The two interests advanced by the State are that display of the motto (1) facilities the identification of passenger vehicles, and (2) promotes appreciation of history, individualism, and state pride.

The State first points out that passenger vehicles, but not commercial, trailer, or other vehicles are required to display the state motto. Thus, the argument proceeds, officers of the law are more easily able to determine whether passenger vehicles are carrying the proper plates. However, the record here reveals that New Hampshire passenger license plates normally consist of a specific configuration of letters and numbers, which makes them readily distinguishable from other types of plates, even without reference to the state motto. Even were we to credit the State's reasons and "even though the governmental purpose be legitimate and substantial, that purpose cannot be pursued by means that broadly stifle fundamental personal liberties when the end can be more narrowly achieved. The breadth of legislative abridgment must be viewed in the light of less drastic means for achieving the same basic purpose." Shelton v. Tucker (1960).

The State's second claimed interest is not ideologically neutral. The State is seeking to communicate to others an official view as to proper appreciation of history, state pride, and individualism. Of course, the State may legitimately pursue such interests in any number of ways. However, where the State's interest is to disseminate an ideology, no matter how acceptable to some, such interest cannot outweigh an individual's First Amendment right to avoid becoming the courier for such message.

We conclude that the State of New Hampshire may not require appellees to display the state motto upon their vehicle license plates; and, accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the District Court.



... The State has not forced appellees to "say" anything; and it has not forced them to communicate ideas with nonverbal actions reasonably likened to "speech," such as wearing a lapel button promoting a political candidate or waving a flag as a symbolic gesture. The State has simply required that all * noncommercial automobiles bear license tags with the state motto, "Live Free or Die." Appellees have not been forced to affirm or reject that motto; they are simply required by the State, under its police power, to carry a state auto license tag for identification and registration purposes.

... [T]he Court relies almost solely on Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). The Court cites Barnette for the proposition that there is a constitutional right, in some cases, to "refrain from speaking."... What the Court does not demonstrate is that there is any "speech" or "speaking" in the context of this case. The Court also relies upon the "right to decline to foster [religious, political, and ideological] concepts," and treats the state law in this case as if it were forcing appellees to proselytize, or to advocate an ideological point of view. But this begs the question. The issue, unconfronted by the Court, is whether appellees, in displaying, as they are required to do, state license tags, the format of which is known to all as having been prescribed by the State, would be considered to be advocating political or ideological views. The Court recognizes, as it must, that this case substantially differs from Barnette, in which schoolchildren were forced to recite the pledge of allegiance while giving the flag salute.... However, the Court states "the difference is essentially one of degree."... But having recognized the rather obvious differences between these two cases, the Court does not explain why the same result should obtain. The Court suggests that the test is whether the individual is forced "to be an instrument for fostering public adherence to an ideological point of view he finds unacceptable."... But, once again, these are merely conclusory words, barren of analysis. For example, were New Hampshire to erect a multitude of billboards, each proclaiming "Live Free or Die," and tax all citizens for the cost of erection and maintenance, clearly the message would be "fostered" by the individual citizen-taxpayers and just as clearly those individuals would be "instruments" in that communication. Certainly, however, that case would not fall within the ambit of Barnette. In that case, as in this case, there is no affirmation of belief. For First Amendment principles to be implicated, the State must place the citizen in the position of either apparently or actually "asserting as true" the message. This was the focus of Barnette, and clearly distinguishes this case from that one....

The logic of the Court's opinion leads to startling, and I believe totally unacceptable, results. For example, the mottoes "In God We Trust" and "E Pluribus Unum" appear on the coin and currency of the United States. I cannot imagine that the statutes ... proscribing defacement of United States currency impinge upon the First Amendment rights of an atheist. The fact that an atheist carries and uses United States currency does not, in any meaningful sense, convey any affirmation of belief on his part in the motto "In God We Trust." Similarly, there is no affirmation of belief involved in the display of state license tags upon the private automobiles involved here.

I would reverse the judgment of the District Court.