Manasek v. Registrar of Motor Vehicles (Alberta)

The Justice Centre represented Tomas Manasek, a Calgary man who filed a court application challenging the decision of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles to deny him the personalized licence plate “FREE AB”.

Mr. Manasek decided in December 2019 to purchase a personalized licence plate to express his views regarding Alberta independence. He applied for a personalized plate that would read “FREE AB,” and paid the required fee.

On December 12, 2019, only two days after submitting his application, Mr. Manasek received a rejection letter from the Registrar of Motor Vehicles denying his application for a “FREE AB” personalized plate. The letter stated that “FREE AB” “does not fit within the guidelines of the program”, but not explain how.

Mr. Manasek is no stranger to the heavy hand of the state when it comes to free speech. He immigrated to Alberta in the late 1970s from communist Czechoslovakia and was grateful to live in a country which protects personal freedoms in its Constitution. Given his life experience behind the Iron Curtain, Mr. Manasek is deeply interested in sustaining individual liberty, democracy and local autonomy in Alberta. In 2019, he was an Alberta Independence Party candidate in the provincial election.

Personalized licence plates have been available in Alberta since 1985.  Like other provinces, the government opened the space on licence plates to individual expression for a fee so that people can “personalize” their plate.  In Troller v. Manitoba Public Insurance, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba recognized that the Charter applies to protect free expression on personalized license plates.   Personalized plates are an exercise in creativity; the unique messages can convey surprisingly complex thoughts despite the space limitation of just seven characters.  At least 80,000 personalized plates have been issued in Alberta.

An Alberta Government website lists guidelines and restrictions that govern the issuance and permitted content of personalized plates, such as prohibitions on “political slurs” and “words when translated are offensive.”

Mr. Manasek’s case is the fourth involving personalized licence plates that the Justice Centre has taken to court.  In 2019, the Justice Centre secured the return of a personalized licence plate, “NDN CAR” to Bruce Spence, an Aboriginal man in Winnipeg.  Another Winnipeg man lost his Star Trek-themed plate “ASIMIL8” when a Manitoba court, although agreeing with the Justice Centre that the Charter protects expression on personalized licence plates, ruled the government was justified in revoking this plate.  Lorne Grabher, whose “GRABHER” plate was revoked by the Nova Scotia government after 27 years of use, has taken his fight to keep his plate to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, where he will be represented pro bono by the Justice Cent

Following the filing of the court application, the Registrar reversed its initial decision. Mr. Manasek is pleased to now have his “FREE AB” personalized plate displayed on his vehicle.

The Charter protects citizen expression on personalized plates.  The government, after inviting individuals to express themselves on such plates, cannot arbitrarily reject phrases like “FREE AB” merely to avoid controversy or because it disapproves of the meaning or message of the phrase,” explains Justice Centre lawyer, James Kitchen.

“The Registrar’s reversal is an acknowledgement that in a free Alberta, “FREE AB” is permitted to be freely expressed on a personalized licence plate. This is another victory for free speech.”