George Maynard recalls license-plate ordeal, free-speech victory
One in a series of interviews with principals involved in First Amendment-related U.S. Supreme Court cases (see “SCT interview” keyword below).
Most United States Supreme Court cases do not arise out of a $25 fine and a license plate. But George Maynard’s case did after he covered up the state of New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto on his vehicles’ plates.
In November 1974, Maynard received a citation for concealing the motto on his plate with reflective red tape. Maynard went to court to fight the charge because it conflicted with his personal religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. He believed that the motto violated his religious beliefs because it implied that one had to give up his life for the state. To Maynard and his wife, Maxine, the only kingdom is God’s kingdom.
At the time, Maynard, a Korean War veteran, worked as a printer in Vermont. The resulting legal dispute ended up costing him his job. Though the cost of his free expression was high, Maynard felt obligated to adhere to his beliefs.
“I did it for my own personal integrity,” Maynard said in a recent interview with freedomforum.org. “I also did not believe that the motto ‘Live Free’ really indicated the status of freedom in this country. I didn’t believe we had that much freedom and my case ended up proving my point.”
“I mean, we don’t put slogans on our houses,” he says. “Why should we have to put them on our cars?”
Maynard represented himself before the judge and received a $25 fine, which the judge suspended on an assumption of subsequent “good behavior.” In December 1974, Maynard was again cited for violating the law. Once again he represented himself in court and was again found guilty.
This time the judge fined him $50 and sentenced him to six months in prison. The judge then suspended the sentence provided that Maynard pay his fines. Maynard told the judge that as a matter of conscience he would not pay them. The judge then made him serve 15 days in jail.
“The 15 days weren’t that bad,” Maynard recalls. “It was like a country club in jail. I think our criminals are well taken care of. I just don’t think that jail is any great punishment. I think that many people intentionally commit crimes because they get more benefits in jail, like free meals, than they do on the outside.”
Before appearing in court for the second charge, Maynard received a third citation but received no additional penalty.
Maynard originally did not intend to pursue the matter. However, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union contacted him. Attorney Richard S. Kohn with the ACLU told Maynard he had a good federal lawsuit based on a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Maynard says it was the ACLU’s idea and he obliged. “I really had no choice,” he said. “I wasn’t going to stop covering up the motto and I faced more jail time. So I agreed to let them file the lawsuit.”
Kohn and New Hampshire attorney Jack Middleton represented Maynard and his wife in a federal lawsuit file in March 1975. They sued Neal Wooley, the chief of police in Lebanon, N.H., and the state, alleging a violation of their clients’ First Amendment rights.
Middleton told freedomforum.org that his firm took the case pro bono — free of charge — because he thought it was a good case. “I just thought it was a worthwhile case and I really was not all that fond of that motto myself,” he recalls. “Maynard had very strong religious beliefs and was very sincere in his challenge.”
“In more than 40 years of representing clients, I would say that George Maynard was in the top category of clients,” Middleton says. “He was very cooperative and listened to all the advice that we gave him.”
Middleton said he and Kohn feared they might lose the case “because the New Hampshire Supreme Court had rejected a similar First Amendment challenge brought by three Dartmouth College students who had covered up the motto on their vehicles and had lost. But we thought it was such a worthwhile case.”
A week after the lawsuit was filed, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order, preventing further arrests and prosecutions of the Maynards. The case then proceeded to a panel of three federal judges at the district court level.
The three-judge panel also sided with Maynard and issued an opinion in February 1976. The judges determined that the Maynards’ actions qualified as a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.
“Whatever else may be said about the motto ‘Live Free or Die’, it expresses philosophical and political ideas,” the court wrote. “Plaintiffs’ desire not to be aligned with these ideas falls within the ambit of the First Amendment.”
The state had argued that the state law furthered a number of positive values, such as fostering an appreciation of state history and tradition and creating state pride. The state also contended that the motto on the plates aided in the identification of passenger cars in the state.
The district court rejected both interests. First, the court determined that the creation of positive values associated with the motto is “directly related to the suppression of free expression.” The court also determined that the state could advance its interests in proper vehicle identification in ways that would not infringe on First Amendment values. “Surely [the state] need not structure its system of vehicle identification so that individuals will have to display a motto to which they are philosophically opposed,” the court wrote.
Maynard’s lawyers pointed out that the vehicles driven by state officials did not have to carry the state motto on their plates.
To the Supreme Court
Then-governor Meldrim W. Thompson ordered the state attorney general to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. His name: David Souter, who now sits on the high court.
“Thompson was a very patriotic and very conservative governor,” Middleton recalls. “He used to fly the flags half-mast on Good Friday. It was not surprising that the state appealed.”
Maynard himself never attended oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Wooley v. Maynard. “I couldn’t afford the time or the travel,” he explains. “I wish that I had been able to attend. I think it would have been a nice experience.”
The Supreme Court voted 6-3 in favor of the Maynards. The Supreme Court likened the Maynards’ refusal to accept the state motto with the Jehovah’s Witness children refusing to salute the American flag in public school in the famous 1943 decision, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette. In Barnette, the high court ruled that the state had violated the First Amendment by punishing students and their parents for the students’ refusal to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
“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,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the majority in Maynard.
“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,” Burger continued.
“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 wrote.
The Supreme Court concluded that the state’s interests paled in comparison to individuals’ free-expression rights.
Maynard never received a dime for the federal civil rights lawsuit filed on his and his wife’s behalf. “That was fine with me; I never did it for the money,” he says. Instead, Maynard simply filed a lawsuit to have the court declare that the state could not enforce its license-plate law against the Maynards.
However, Maynard’s attorneys were able to receive their attorney fees. In civil rights lawsuits, the prevailing party can often recover legal fees. The federal district court awarded the Maynards’ legal team $21,000 in fees for the suit.
There was one problem — the state refused to pay. “We eventually had to get a writ of execution from the court, which we gave to the U.S. marshal,” Middleton recalls.
The marshal then walked into a state-owned liquor store and demanded the sum of $21,000 from a store clerk. The clerk phoned a superior and then the state agreed to pay.
“This was typical of the New Hampshire government at that time,” Middleton says. “I guess they were angry and upset with the decision.”
As for Maynard, he moved from New Hampshire to Connecticut. He also received a citation for covering up the slogan “The Constitution State” on his license plate in Connecticut.
“I received a citation from a police officer,” he says. “I called my attorney and he told me not to worry about it. I never went to court and actually never heard another word about it. I was told I set some kind of precedent.”
Maynard says his case stands for the principle that every individual has freedom of conscience that cannot be imposed on by the state. “My case helped establish that it is a part of freedom of speech to say something or to not say something; they both are protected.”
First Amendment experts agree that George and Maxine Maynard have left an important First Amendment legacy.
Robert D. Richards, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says: “Wooley v. Maynard expanded the broad First Amendment ‘right to refrain’ from speaking — a notion articulated earlier in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette. After Wooley, it was clear that government cannot compel citizens to profess allegiance to a particular viewpoint or even passively display it on a license plate. The case is an important piece in the line of cases dealing with compelled speech because of this expansion.”
Robert O’Neil, founder of the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, agrees that the decision has had lasting importance in First Amendment jurisprudence. “The Maynard Court solidly affirmed the basic right not to be compelled to speak, at least with respect to an abhorrent message or viewpoint, and the judgment has been largely followed ever since — in the realm of union dues, integrated state bar membership, and most recently collective advertising,” O’Neil says.
“It remains a seminal decision in a vital, if infrequently litigated, area of First Amendment law,” O’Neil says.
Maynard turns 70 in March 2002 and is now retired. He has left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and now focuses on helping people turn to what he calls “God’s Government.”
“I think that the ultimate authority is God and that is the government that I choose to follow,” Maynard says.
His faith causes him to question whether the First Amendment has been extended too far in certain circumstances. He says that the First Amendment should not protect immorality. “I think that freedom should protect the right principles of morality,” he says.
“I think the ACLU does a good job for good things and I think they do a good job for bad things, such as protecting pornography and homosexuality — things that conflict with the teachings of the Bible,” Maynard says.
“But they did right by me in my case and I still appreciate that.”