430 U.S. 705 (1977), 75-1453, Wooley v. Maynard

Docket Nº:No. 75-1453
Citation:430 U.S. 705, 97 S.Ct. 1428, 51 L.Ed.2d 752
Party Name:Wooley v. Maynard
Case Date:April 20, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 705

430 U.S. 705 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 1428, 51 L.Ed.2d 752




No. 75-1453

United States Supreme Court

April 20, 1977

Argued November 29, 1976




New Hampshire statutes require that noncommercial motor vehicles bear license plates embossed with the state motto, "Live Free or Die," and make it a misdemeanor to obscure the motto. Appellees, Maynard and his wife, who are followers of the Jehovah's Witnesses faith, view the motto as repugnant to their moral, religious, and political beliefs, and accordingly they covered up the motto on the license plates of their jointly owned family automobiles. Appellee Maynard was subsequently found guilty in state court of violating the misdemeanor statute on three separate charges, and, upon refusing to pay the fines imposed, was sentenced to, and served, 15 days in jail. Appellees then brought this action in Federal District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief against enforcement of the New Hampshire statutes; a three-judge court enjoined the State from arresting and prosecuting appellees in the future for covering the motto on their license plates.


1. The principles of equitable restraint enunciated in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, do not preclude the District Court from exercising jurisdiction. Pp. 709-712.

(a) When a genuine threat of state prosecutions exists, a litigant is entitled to resort to a federal forum to seek redress for an alleged deprivation of federal rights, and, aside from Younger principles, may seek such redress under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Pp. 709-710.

(b) When the relief sought is wholly prospective, i.e., to preclude further prosecution under a statute alleged to violate constitutional rights, failure to seek state appellate review of criminal convictions does not bar relief in federal court. Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, distinguished. Pp. 710-711.

(c) The threat of repeated prosecutions in the future against both appellees, and the effect of such a continuing threat on their ability to perform the ordinary tasks [97 S.Ct. 1431] of daily life that require an automobile, are sufficient to justify injunctive relief, and hence the District Court was not limited to granting declaratory relief. Pp. 711-712.

2. The State may not constitutionally require an individual to participate

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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. Pp. 71717.

(a) New Hampshire's statute, by forcing an individual, as part of his daily life -- indeed, constantly while his automobile is in public view -- to be an instrument for advocating public adherence to an ideological point of view he finds unacceptable, "invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment . . . to reserve from all official control," Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642. Pp. 714-715.

(b) The State's claimed interests in requiring display of the state motto on license plates (1) so as to facilitate the identification of passenger vehicles, and (2) so as to promote appreciation of history, individualism, and state pride, are not sufficiently compelling to justify infringement of appellees' First Amendment rights. The purpose of the first interest could be achieved by less drastic means, and the second interest cannot outweigh an individual's First Amendment right to avoid becoming the courier for the State's ideological message. Pp. 715-717.

406 F.Supp. 1381, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in which WHITE, J., joined, except insofar as it affirms the District Court's issuance of an injunction. WHITE, J., filed a opinion dissenting in part, in which BLACKMUN and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 717. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 719.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue on appeal is whether the State of New Hampshire may constitutionally enforce criminal sanctions against

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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.


Since 1969, New Hampshire has required that noncommercial vehicles bear license plates embossed with the state motto, "Live Free or Die."1 N.H.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 263:1 (Supp. 1975). Another New Hampshire statute makes it a misdemeanor "knowingly [to obscure] . . . the figures or letters on any number plate." N.H.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 262:27-c (Supp. 1975). The term "letters" in this section has been interpreted by the State's highest court to include the state motto. State v. Hoskin, 112 N.H. 332, 295 A.2d 454 (1972).

Appellees George Maynard and his wife Maxine are followers of the Jehovah's Witnesses faith. The Maynards consider the New Hampshire State motto to be repugnant to their moral, religious, and political beliefs,2 and therefore assert it objectionable to disseminate this message by displaying it on their automobiles.3 Pursuant to [97 S.Ct. 1432] these beliefs, the

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Maynards began early in 1974 to cover up the motto on their license plates.4

On November 27, 1974, Mr. Maynard was issued a citation for violating § 262:27-c. On December 6, 1974, he appeared pro se in Lebanon, N.H., District Court to answer the charge. After waiving his right to counsel, he entered a plea of not guilty and proceeded to explain his religious objections to the motto. The state trial judge expressed sympathy for Mr. Maynard's situation, but considered himself bound by the authority of State v. Hoskin, supra, to hold Maynard guilty. A $25 fine was imposed, but execution was suspended during "good behavior."

On December 28, 1974, Mr. Maynard was again charged with violating § 262:27-c. He appeared in court on January 31, 1975, and again chose to represent himself; he was found guilty, fined $50, and sentenced to six months in the Grafton County House of Corrections. The court suspended this jail sentence, but ordered Mr. Maynard to also pay the $25 fine for the first offense. Maynard informed the court that, as a matter of conscience, he refused to pay the two fines. The court thereupon sentenced him to jail for a period of 15 days. He has served the full sentence.

Prior to trial on the second offense, Mr. Maynard was charged with yet a third violation of § 262:27-c on January 3, 1975. He appeared on this complaint on the same day as for the second offense, and was, again, found guilty. This conviction was "continued for sentence," so that Maynard received no punishment in addition to the 15 days.

Page 709


On March 4, 1975, appellees brought the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire. They sought injunctive and declaratory relief against enforcement of N.H.Rev.Stat.Ann. §§ 262:27-c, 263:1, insofar as these required displaying the state motto on their vehicle license plates, and made it a criminal offense to obscure the motto.5 On March 11, 1975, the single District Judge issued a temporary restraining order against further arrests and prosecutions of the Maynards. Because the appellees sought an injunction against a state statute on grounds of its unconstitutionality, a three-judge District Court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2281. Following a hearing on the merits,6 the District Court entered an order enjoining the State

from arresting and prosecuting [the Maynards] at any time in the future for covering over that portion of their license plates that contains the motto "Live Free or Die."7

406 F.Supp. 1381 (1976). We noted probable jurisdiction of the appeal. 426 U.S. 946 (1976).


Appellants argue that the District Court was precluded from exercising jurisdiction in this case by the principles of

Page 710

equitable restraint enunciated in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (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. Id. at 43. 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. See Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452 (1974); Doran v. Salem Inn Inc., 422 U.S. 922, 930-931 (1975). Younger principles aside, a litigant is entitled to resort to a federal forum in seeking redress under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an alleged deprivation of federal rights. Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 609-610, n. 21 (1975). Mr. Maynard now finds himself placed "between the Scylla of intentionally flouting state law and the Charybdis of forgoing what he believes to be constitutionally protected activity in order to avoid becoming enmeshed in [another] criminal proceeding." Steffel v. Thompson, supra at 462. Mrs. Maynard, as joint owner of the family automobiles, is no less likely than her husband to be subjected to state prosecution. Under these circumstances, he cannot be denied consideration of a federal remedy.

Appellants, however, point out that Maynard failed to seek review of his criminal convictions, and cite Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., supra, for the propositions that

a necessary concomitant of Younger is that a party in appellee's posture must exhaust his state appellate remedies before seeking relief...

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