Global Freedom of Expression

Wooley v. Maynard

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Non-verbal Expression
  • Date of Decision
    April 20, 1977
  • Outcome
    Law or Action Overturned or Deemed Unconstitutional, Injunction or Order Granted, Declaratory Relief
  • Case Number
    430 U.S. 705
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Religious Freedom

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Supreme Court held that New Hampshire could not constitutionally require citizens to display a motto on their vehicles. George Maynard, a Jehovah’s Witness, challenged a New Hampshire law that required all noncommercial vehicles to bear license plates containing the state motto “Live Free or Die,” because it was contrary to his religious and political beliefs. He scratched off the words “or Die” off his plate, and was convicted of violating the state law, was subsequently fined, and then received a jail sentence. The Court reasoned that the State’s interests in requiring the motto did not outweigh free speech principles under the First Amendment, including “the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority and to refuse to foster….an idea they find morally objectionable.”


Maynard was cited for altering his New Hampshire license plate. He pled not guilty to the charge and explained that the license plate motto is counter to his religious beliefs. The judge found him guilty of the offense and imposed a fine of $25. Maynard was cited again one month later for altering his license plate. He was found guilty, fined $50, and sentenced to six months in jail. The court suspended the jail sentence and ordered Maynard to pay $25 for the first fine. Maynard refused to pay either fine on moral grounds. As a result, a court revoked the suspended sentence and ordered Maynard to serve 15 days in jail. He was subsequently charged with a third violation of the statute, but was not sentenced to any additional time in jail.

Maynard and his wife brought a civil rights action in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire. They sought injunctive and declaratory relief against the enforcement of the state statute requiring them to display the license plate. The district court issued a temporary restraining order, and the State was enjoined from arresting or prosecuting the Maynards for covering the motto. The district court held that when the Maynards covered up the motto on their license plates, they were engaging in symbolic speech that was constitutionally protected.

The State appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The issue the U.S. Supreme Court addressed was whether a State may constitutionally require an individual to participate in the dissemination of an ideological message by requiring him to display the message on his private property, and require him to do so in a manner which would be observed and read by the public.

Decision Overview

Burger, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the right to freedom of thought is protected by the First Amendment, and includes the right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking. These concepts are inherently linked to the concept of “individual freedom of mind,” and the First Amendment protects individuals who hold a different view from the majority.  At 714.

The Court analyzed whether the state’s interests—the identification of vehicles, and the promotion of history, individualism, and state pride—are “sufficiently compelling” to justify requiring the Maynards to display the motto on their license plates. The Court rejected the argument for both of these interests, finding that vehicles are identified by the letters and numbers displayed on the license plate, not by the motto.  The State’s interest in conveying state pride cannot outweigh an individual’s First Amendment right to refuse to convey or speak a message.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The case is significant because it reiterated that an individual’s right to freedom of speech and thought, which may include articulating unpopular or minority positions, is protected by the First Amendment. The case is also significant because it discussed how a state cannot compel an individual to speak a message on its behalf, or force an individual to subscribe to certain beliefs.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

General Law Notes

The Court did not cite any international or regional or other national laws or cases.

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

All state and federal courts are bound to follow the United States Supreme Court’s decision.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

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