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March|April 2006

Quilts

MARGOT SANGER-KATZ

NEW HAMPSHIRE'S RESIDENTS, who are consistently ranked among the country's stingiest, like to think of themselves as the most politically aware. This combination makes the state's affordable $25 vanity license plate a difficult item to pass up.

Paula Werme, a New Hampshire lawyer who tangles with the state on behalf of parents accused of mistreating their children, has little affection for the Division for Children, Youth and Families, the state's child welfare agency. She saw fit to broadcast this displeasure with a vanity plate: H8DCYF.

A month after it was issued, Werme was asked by the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles to return the plate because officials deemed it offensive. Werme, pleased to find a new state agency to battle, fought the department through letters, calls, and visits—but she hung on to H8DCYF. As a matter of policy, the state stopped issuing H8 plates and that seemed to be the end of it, until DMV inspectors plucked the plate from Werme's car. The DMV explained that it can retract plates as it sees fit. While Werme was confident that she had a strong free-speech claim against the state, she decided not to sue, instead moving on to GAGGED plates and later to a pair urging AXDCYF.

Besides, why sue when you can quilt? Werme transcribed her battle into a red, white, and blue bed quilt. Onto the quilt, she stitched reproduced images of her plates, her correspondence with the DMV, newspaper coverage, and the words of the state constitution's clause protecting freedom of expression. Its stitching draws scalloped lines from item to item to direct the flow of the narrative.

The story that Werme's quilt tells is good for a laugh, but the 5 by 4 and a half foot piece is also winning accolades as a work of art. So far, it has earned blue ribbons at two fairs, including a best in show at last summer's Hopkinton State Fair. One judge held the quilt up admiringly and pointed out its dense, hand-sewn stitching. Werme is proud of such recognition, but considers her quilt less an objet d'art than a piece of political protest. "If they can trample the rights of a civil rights lawyer like that," She said of the DMV, "whose rights are safe?"


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