The Justice Centre filed a court application against the Nova Scotia Registrar of Motor Vehicles (the “Registrar”) after it refused to reinstate the personalized licence plate of Dartmouth, NS pensioner Lorne Grabher, whose surname was deemed too “socially unacceptable” for the road.
Lorne Grabher first purchased the personalized license plate as a gift for his late father in 1991. It has since become a source of family pride, spanning three generations – Grabher’s son has the family name on his own personalized Alberta license plate. The Nova Scotia government received a lone complaint from an unidentified individual in 2016 about the plate. On December 9, 2016, the Nova Scotia Registrar of Motor Vehicles notified Mr. Grabher that his plate had been cancelled. The letter claimed the plate could be “misinterpreted” as a “socially unacceptable slogan.”
The Justice Centre wrote to the Registrar on March 31, 2017. In its letter, the Justice Centre calls out the Registrar’s decision as “discriminatory,” “arbitrary,” “unreasonable” and in violation of free expression as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It further states that the decision is “an affront to the dignity of Canadians, and particularly those Canadians who are not of Anglo-Saxon descent.” The letter advised the Registrar to reinstate the plate or face further legal action. The Registrar responded on April 6, 2017, indicating that it would not voluntarily reinstate Mr. Grabher’s plate.
On behalf of Mr. Grabher, the Justice Centre filed a Notice of Application with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on May 11, 2017. A substantive hearing into Lorne Grabher v. Registrar of Motor Vehicles was heard April 24-25, 2019. Mr. Grabher’s claim was based on freedom of expression and equality rights as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In also challenging the constitutionality of the pertinent Regulation relied on by Nova Scotia, Mr. Grabher pointed to a list of “banned” words the province has compiled to illustrate the arbitrary system by which the province regulates personalized plates. The list prohibits the use of many harmless words, such as “FENCE”, “AND”, “SAMPLE”, “NONE”, “SAFE”, and “GOLD”. On January 31, 2020, Justice Darlene Jamieson found that the list was largely irrelevant and denied Mr. Grahber the return of his licence plate.
Justice Jamieson legitimized governments’ use of words like “Dildo”, “Crotch”, “Swastika” and “Sh*t”, and phrases such as “Negro Lake” and “Blow Me Down”, on public property, but ruled that Mr. Grabher cannot use his family name on a licence plate because it might be “offensive”. 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 held that “the provincial government cannot sanction having vehicles with government-owned plates traveling the highways of this province and country bearing messages that could be considered ‘offensive or not in good taste.’”
The decision is being reviewed by the Justice Centre legal team.