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

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Wooley v. Maynard

No. 75-1453

Argued November 29, 1976

Decided April 20, 1977

430 U.S. 705


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. 430 U. S. 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. 430 U. S. 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. 430 U. S. 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 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. 430 U. S. 711-712.

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

Page 430 U. S. 706

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, 319 U. S. 642. Pp. 430 U. S. 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. 430 U. S. 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. 430 U. S. 717. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 430 U. S. 719.

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