The fascinating free speech history of American license plates

You know how US states have "official birds" and "official trees" and other arbitrary "official [insert thing]" accolades, which are mostly just meaningless marketing tactics? As the podcast 99% Invisible explained in a recent episode, the same is true for license plates.

The rise of the road trip in the 1920s created a huge new tourist market. People on the road needed services that hadn't existed in the age of steam-powered travel. Gas stations, food, roadside motels — from the states' perspectives, all those new tourist dollars were up for grabs. States began letting the world know what they had to offer. Arizona had the Grand Canyon. Minnesota had its lakes. In this war for tourists, states promoted themselves anywhere they could, but no one thought to advertise on a license plate until 1928 when Idahoans realized that their plates were too valuable to waste on just a registration number.

Idaho's potato plates centered on agriculture, rather than tourism. But still, Rick Just says once Idaho staked its "starchy flag" on the license plate, the rush was on. "License plates became a different thing because of that potato." States spent the middle of the century transforming their plates from austere government documents into colorful boosters of tourism and industry. In 1940, Arizona stamped "Grand Canyon State" on its plates and never looked back. In 1950 Minnesota went with 'Land of 10,000 Lakes." Some states went with a classic slogan and stuck with it, like New York's "Empire State." Other states couldn't make up their minds.

But this tourism marketing tactic also opened up a whole new can of worms around free speech issues. In the famously libertarian state of New Hampshire in the 1970s, a Jehovah's Witness named George Maynard took a religious issue with the state's "Live Free or Die" slogan — which was of course displayed on his license plate.

As a Jehovah's Witness, Maynard actually believed that god-given life was more important than freedom and he didn't appreciate the government telling him what to die over. So Maynard covered the slogan up with some tape. But when he erased the state's message, George Maynard marched to the front lines of the license plate wars.

Covering up the slogan was a violation of state law, and one day Maynard and his wife were coming back to their car after doing some shopping, and they saw a police officer writing them a ticket. Maynard refused to pay the $25 ticket and also kept the tape over the slogan. The tickets piled up. Finally, his consistent refusal to pay them landed him in court. The judge ended up putting him in jail for fifteen days, "And so if you don't want to live free or die, you go to jail in New Hampshire," says Maynard.

And, like most things in America, the free speech battle over license plates would later boil to a new conflict relating to … Confederate flags and racism. In Texas, of all places, where a legal battle came down to the question of: what right does a government registration display have to express moral positions on other peoples' properties?

All in all: it's a fascinating episode, about two seemingly disparate issues that I had personally never though about before.

Episode 434: Artistic License [99% Invisible]

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons