Nova Scotia top court dismisses ‘GRABHER’ licence plate appeal

HALIFAX – The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has dismissed a man’s bid to reverse the revocation of his personalized licence plate bearing his surname, “Grabher.“

Lawyers for Lorne Grabher filed for appeal in January on the grounds that his right to freedom of expression had been violated. But the Court of Appeal issued a unanimous ruling on Tuesday, declaring the trial judge was right to rule that Grabher’s plate was not an area to which freedom of expression applied.

“I do not agree the hearing judge erred in concluding there was no ‘history of free expression’ in relation to personalized licence plates,” Justice Cindy A. Bourgeois wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.

The “GRABHER” licence plate, Bourgeois noted, could in fact be interpreted as a call to gender-based violence.

Grabher’s Nova Scotia plate, which he had for nearly 30 years, was recalled by the province’s Registrar of Motor Vehicles in December 2016 after it received a complaint the sign promoted hatred toward women.

He took the matter to court in 2017 to recall the registrar’s decision, arguing it violated his charter rights to equality and to freedom of expression.

The lower court judge, Justice Darlene Jamieson, ruled that licence plates are not typically viewed as “public places” with a history of free expression, a sentiment the Court of Appeal agreed with.

Under provincial regulations, Nova Scotia’s registrar can refuse to issue personalized licence plates if the proposed combination of characters expresses or implies a word, phrase or idea that could be considered offensive or in poor taste.

During the appeal process, one of Grabher’s lawyers, Jay Cameron, pointed out that the registrar had decided that Grabher’s plate was appropriate for 27 years and only decided it was illegal following an anonymous complaint.

“On what basis? What had changed?” Cameron asked the Court of Appeal panel. “Mr. Grabher’s name was the same, the plate was the same, the law was the same, the Constitution is the same. There is no evidence that for nearly three decades the plate harmed anyone.”

Crown attorney Jack Townsend, however, argued all licence plates are Crown property and they remain so even when displayed on a vehicle.

“What I would submit is precious little can be accomplished in that space in terms of expression which promote values relating to democracy or the search for the truth,” Townsend said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2021.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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