A Nova Scotia senior citizen has been denied the return of his personalized licence plate featuring his family name GRABHER on the grounds that it might be deemed “offensive”.
The lengthy legal case rolls back to October 2016, when the Nova Scotia Registrar of Motor Vehicles received a complaint about Lorne Grabher’s licence plate. Prior to that, Grabher, his father and his son, used their last name – which is of Austrian-German heritage – on a personalized licence plate for 27 years without any problems.
In December 2016, the Dartmouth, NS citizen received a notice of cancellation from the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, in which then Registrar, Ms. Janice Harland stated: “While I recognize this plate was issued as your last name, the public cannot be expected to know this and can misinterpret it as a socially unacceptable slogan.”
Following that decision, Grabher made several formal requests for the Registrar to reconsider her decision, but he was told the cancellation was final. This is when the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) got involved. The organization contacted the Registrar demanding the plate be reinstated, arguing that the decision was “discriminatory”, “arbitrary”, and “unreasonable”, and a violation of free expression as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
When this came to naught, the JCCF launched a court action against the Registrar on behalf of Grabher in May 2017, and a lengthy hearing took place in April 2019. In the hearing, Grabher challenged the constitutionality of Nova Scotia’s regulation surrounding “banned” words on personalized plates. He referred to harmless words, such as “FENCE”, “AND”, “SAMPLE”, “NONE”, “SAFE”, and “GOLD”, and questioned why they should be banned when words like “Dildo”, “Crotch”, “Swastika” and “Sh*t” were given approval for public signs.
Grabher’s arguments did not sway Justice Darlene Jamieson. In a written court ruling published on January 31, 2020, Justice Jamieson denied the reinstatement of the GRABHER licence plate – an order that left Grabher and his family “profoundly disappointed,” according to the JCCF.
Justice Jamieson also disagreed with a recent Manitoba Court ruling in finding that “the nature of a [personalized] licence plate is not compatible with free expression.” She said: “The provincial government cannot sanction having vehicles with government-owned plates travelling the highways of this province and country bearing messages that could be considered ‘offensive or not in good taste.’”