Today in 1977: Supreme Court rules on license plate motto

April 14, 2010

It’s hard to imagine how a piece of tape on a license plate could land someone in the slammer, but it’s the reason New Hampshire resident George Maynard spent 15 days behind bars in 1975.

A few years earlier, the New Hampshire legislature decided to add the state motto, “Live Free or Die,” to the state’s license plates in order to make them more memorable – not a lofty goal, given that the previous slogan was “Scenic New Hampshire.”

Not everyone liked the bold new look, though. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Maynard took issue with the sentiment, which he said was contrary to his church’s teachings about everlasting life. So he began taping over the “or Die” part of the motto on his family’s plates.

Problem solved…except that New Hampshire, like most states, has a law against altering license plates. The local police made a habit of enforcing this statute each time they crossed paths with Maynard, and Maynard made a habit of refusing to pay the fines – which is how he ended up in jail.

Wooley v. Maynard soon made its way to the Supreme Court, where an earlier judgment in favor of Maynard was upheld on First Amendment grounds.

“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,” wrote Chief Justice Warren Burger in the majority opinion.

“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,” Burger continued, making reference to a 1943 Supreme Court decision involving another family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “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.”