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Case Summary:
Wooley v. Maynard (1977)

Compelled Speech

License Plates: Wooley v. Maynard

What would you do if the federal government passed a law requiring every vehicle to display a “Make American Great Again” bumper sticker (and you weren’t a Trump supporter)?

For former New Hampshire residents, George and Maxine Maynard, this wasn’t just a hypothetical question. New Hampshire state law required that all state license plates had to contain the state motto: “Live Free or Die,” and fined residents for obscuring or removing the words. For the Maynards, devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, this requirement was unacceptable. They believed that God would grant them eternal life. After receiving multiple fines and a 15-day jail sentence for covering the motto, the Maynards filed a federal lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that the New Hampshire law violated the First Amendment by compelling them to “adopt” a message they disbelieved. The state argued that the motto helped vehicle identification and fostered state pride and history.

The federal court agreed with the Maynards, and on appeal, so did the U.S. Supreme Court. In a practical sense, the court found license plate numbers were a much better tool for vehicle identification, easily rejecting that argument. The primary issue was described by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in his majority opinion: “[W]hether 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.” In 1977, a 6-3 ruling found that “[t]he 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.”

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