The defendants in these actions were severally convicted by the Lebanon District Court of violation of RSA 262:27-c (supp.). It is not disputed that the defendant Hoskin hammered out and painted over in white paint the words "Live Free or Die" upon 1971 automobile registration plates issued to him, and that the defendant Ely placed tape over the same words, upon 1971 plates issued to her.
At all times since the statute was amended in 1957 (Laws 1957, 168:1) it has been an offense to knowingly obscure or permit to be obscured "the figures" on any number plate attached to any motor vehicle, whether issued by this or by another State. RSA 262:27-c (supp.). Since the amendment effective August 26, 1967 (Laws 1967, 281:1), it has been an offense to so obscure or permit to be obscured "the figures or letters" on such a plate. RSA 262:27-c (supp.).
As early as 1905, registration plates were required to bear a distinguishing number followed by the letters, "N.H." (Laws 1905, 86:2), and later, "figures showing the year of issue". Laws 1911, 133:2. After the "material and design" of such plates was delegated to the motor vehicle commissioner (Laws 1943, 3:2; see RSA 263:1), the identifying numbers came to be preceded by letters according to the county of the registrant's residence, and "special" number plates were authorized in 1953. RSA 260:10. "Initial" number plates (on payment of a service fee) were authorized in 1957 (RSA 260:10-a (supp.)), and a proliferation of special plates bearing a variety of "letters" have from time to time been authorized. See RSA 260:11-a (supp.), 11-b (supp.); RSA 260:17 (supp.), 18 (supp.); RSA 262:6 (Laws 1937, 203:1 (repealed 1967)); RSA 262:14. Many of the distinguishing identifications so provided for serve to indicate that the displaying vehicle is subject to special regulations. See RSA 261:20 (supp.); RSA 236:9.
Between 1957 and 1970 registration plates bore the letters "Scenic New Hampshire". In 1969, Laws 1969, 494:1 was enacted requiring noncommercial plates to bear the State motto: "Live Free or Die" which replaced the word "scenic" on 1971 registration plates. RSA 263:1 (supp.); see RSA 3:8 (Laws 1945, 152:1). Display of such plates is required by the same statute. RSA 263:1 (supp.).
The State motto upon New Hampshire plates falls within the literal language of the statute, RSA 262:27-c (supp.), and the offenses of which the defendants stand convicted were violations of the statute. State v. Richardson, 92 N.H. 178, 27 A.2d 94 (1942); Haselton v. Interstate Stage Lines Inc., 82 N.H. 327, 133 A. 451 (1926).
Obliteration of the motto tends to defeat the establishment of a uniform number plate system, and is analogous to the offense of mutilation of national coins or currency by obliteration of the national motto, "In God We Trust". 31 U.S.C.A. s. 324 (a) (supp.); 18 U.S.C.A. ss. 331, 333; see Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 440 n.5, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601 n. 5, 82 S.Ct. 1261 n. 5 (1962). Since the registration of vehicles is a reasonable regulatory measure, RSA 262:27-c (supp.) is well within the limits of the police power. "Legislation making conduct a public offense is in exercise of the policy to promote the
The legislative classification between commercial and noncommercial vehicles is not arbitrary or unreasonable. Number plates issued to commercial vehicles are labelled "commercial" and such vehicles are subject to special regulations not applicable to noncommercial vehicles. Similarly farm, agricultural and diesel vehicles are identified by plates which so indicate. Classification which thus facilitates administration of regulatory measures is not to be held unreasonable, and obliteration of letters upon plates attached to commercial vehicles is equally an offense under RSA 262:27-c (supp.). We hold that the defendants were not deprived of the equal protection of the law. See Allen v. Manchester, 99 N.H. 388, 111 A.2d 817 (1955); Sproles v. Binford, 286 U.S. at 396, 76 L. Ed. at 1183, 52 S. Ct. at 588.
We also hold lacking in merit the contention that the defendants were deprived of rights under the first amendment to the United States Constitution. Their argument based upon that amendment lies in narrow compass. They do not argue that their action in obliterating the motto from plates issued to them was symbolic conduct, recognizable as communication equivalent to speech. See United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 376, 20 L. Ed. 2d 672, 679, 88 S.Ct. 1673, 1678 (1968); Cowgill v. California, 396 U.S. 371, 372, 24 L. Ed. 2d 590, 591, 90 S.Ct. 613, 614 (1970). Their argument is that they are penalized because they have exercised a right to be free from a required affirmation of belief. Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 87 L. Ed. 1628, 63 S.Ct. 1178 (1943).
The State has determined that the plates shall carry a maxim which it deems to be for the general welfare. Halter v. Nebraska supra. The statutes of which defendants complain, do not require that they profess a belief therein, but only that they shall not interfere with its promulgation by the means chosen by the State. Their right to free speech is not diminished by this requirement. Cf. Taylor v. Mississippi, 319 U.S. 583, 87 L. Ed. 1600, 63 S.Ct. 1200 (1943). Their right to profess their own belief is not a right to dictate what insignia the State shall display upon the indicia of a State-issued license. As Mr. Justice Harlan observed in concurring in Lathrop v. Donohue: "[T]he Constitution does not protect against the mere play of personal emotions." Lathrop v. Donohue, 367 U.S. 820, 857, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1191, 1213, 81 S.Ct. 1826, 1845 (1961).
The defendants' membership in a class of persons required to display plates bearing the State motto carries no implication and is subject to no requirement that they endorse that motto or profess to adopt it as matter of belief. By virtue of his required membership in a bar association a member does not profess to subscribe to every stand taken by a majority of the members. In re Unified New Hampshire Bar, 112 N.H. 204, 291 A.2d 600 (1972); Lathrop v. Donohue, 367 U.S. 820, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1191, 81 S.Ct. 1826 (1961). One who spends the coin or currency of the United States bearing the motto "In God We Trust", or the Latin phrase "e pluribus unum", is not understood by others to proclaim his belief in either sentiment. See Opinion of the Justices, 108 N.H. 97, 102, 228 A.2d 161, 164 (1967); Lincoln v. Page, 109 N.H. 30, 241 A.2d 799 (1968). Similarly, we think that viewers do not regard the uniform words or devices upon registration plates as the craftsmanship of the registrants. They are known to