The Justice Centre brought a court application against Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) on behalf of Winnipeg resident Nicholas Troller, whose personalized Star Trek licence plate was deemed “offensive” by MPI.
MPI invites the public to express themselves on personalized licence plates. Mr. Troller, an enthusiast of Star Trek, applied for the personalized licence plate “ASIMIL8” in 2015. MPI approved his application and issued the plate, which Mr. Troller installed on his family vehicle, along with a licence plate border that stated: “WE ARE THE BORG” and “RESISTANCE IS FUTILE”. The plate and accompanying border are a reference to the iconic aliens referred to in the Star Trek franchise as “the Borg”.
The plate was renewed by MPI in 2016 without question or concern. However, on April 26, 2017, Mr. Troller received a letter from MPI informing him that the plate was “considered offensive.” The letter did not specify why the plate was considered offensive, or by whom. MPI informed Mr. Troller that he had until May 1, 2017, to surrender his plate, with no recourse to appeal the decision. The Justice Centre wrote to MPI on May 29, 2017 demanding that it reinstate Mr. Troller’s licence plate no later than June 9, 2017. MPI responded on July 7, stating it was “unable to reinstate the plate as requested”.
Providing pro bono legal representation to Mr. Troller, the Justice Centre filed a court application arguing the cancellation of the plate was a violation of his constitutionally protected right to free expression. The case was heard on April 8, 2019. The Court was informed that the complaint which lead to MPI revoking Mr. Troller’s plate came from a political activist in Ontario and that there was no record of any complaints from residents of Manitoba, despite the plate being on Winnipeg roads for two years.
As the Justice Centre argued in its brief submitted to the Court, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects individual expression on personalized licence plates and government censorship of such expression must be justified. The Court agreed, and further ruled that the revocation of Mr. Troller’s plate violated his right to freedom of expression. However, the court ruled in October 2019 that MPI was justified in violating Mr. Troller’s constitutional right because it was “reasonable” to determine the word “assimilate” is “offensive”, and to censor a personalized licence plate on that basis.
Star Trek fans may be reminded of the episode of the Star Trek television series The Next Generation titled “The Drumhead”, in which Captain Jean Luc Picard said, “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we are all damaged”. Ironically, Picard was quoting a United Federation of Planets judge.
This case is not the only instance of MPI censoring individual expression on personalized licence plates. Bruce Spence, an Indigenous man and Winnipeg resident, had his personalized plate, “NDN CAR” revoked in February 2019, also because it was “considered offensive”. Mr. Spence chose “NDN CAR” as a witty reference to the popular folk-rock song “Indian Cars” by Indigenous musician Keith Secola. Interestingly, as was the case with Mr. Troller’s plate, “ASIMIL8”, Mr. Spence noted that in all the years of having his “NDN CAR” plate on his vehicle, he never encountered anyone who complained about his plate or failed to recognize what his plate was a reference to.
Again providing pro bono representation, the Justice Centre filed a court application on behalf of Mr. Spence, challenging MPI’s decision to revoke his plate. In an out-of-court settlement reached a few days before the release of the Court’s decision in Mr. Troller’s case, MPI agreed to return Mr. Spence’s plate to him.
“We are pleased that the Court has ruled that expression on personalized licence plates is constitutionally protected, rejecting MPI’s argument that it was not. But we are deeply disappointed that a Canadian court has yet again lowered the bar for governments to justify censoring the lawful speech of their citizens”, stated Justice Centre lawyer, James Kitchen.