'We are not all Smiths and Johns': Grabher licence plate saga nearing its end
Final arguments have been made both for and against the Nova Scotia government’s decision to withdraw the licence plate of a man whose last name was deemed too offensive for display on a vehicle.
Lorne Grabher appeared in Nova Scotia Supreme Court on Thursday, where his lawyer argued that the 2016 revocation of his personalized ‘Grabher’ licence plate amounted to discrimination against the German-Austrian heritage from which the name stems.
When the province invited the public to express itself — for a fee — on customized license plates, argued civil litigator Jay Cameron, it knew that in a multicultural environment, diverse last names would appear on cars.
“We are not all Smiths and Johns,” Cameron, who works for the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, told Judge Darlene Jamieson on Thursday.
The government’s insinuation, he added, that the plate somehow expresses an endorsement of sexual violence against women, has been a “profound insult” to the Grabher family, that over the years, has caused stress and consternation.
“When does Mr. Grabher get his name back? When he’s too old to drive?” he asked the court.
Cameron argued that there is no precedent for censoring an individual’s right to free expression on the basis that the expression “might be” perceived a certain way, rather has been perceived that way.
Over the 27 years that the Grabher family has had the plate — a period of time in which the plate repeatedly passed renewal scrutiny — Cameron said there is no concrete evidence that any harm to the community has come from it.
His comments come in response to testimony from the province’s witness: communications theory expert and McGill University feminist media studies professor Carrie Rentschler.
Rentschler authored a report offering justification for the government’s removal of the plate on the basis that it may be interpreted as support for violence against women, and tied to controversial comments made by Donald Trump before he became U.S. president.
WATCH: ‘Grabher’ licence plate not dangerous, former sex researcher tells N.S. court (April 24, 2019)
In today’s cultural climate, in a population that is predisposed to interpret the name by reading the words it spells in English, she said it is most likely it would be perceived that way, rather than as someone’s last name.
Without accusing Grabher or his family of committing any particular act, she testified on Thursday that the message projected by the plate is an act of gendered violence. She said its removal from circulation would “increase the conditions” in which community members feel safe, based on years of research about how individuals fear sexual assault.
“You would have no idea that this is somebody’s name,” she said in court — a comment that prompted Grabher, who was sitting in the public gallery, to sigh and shake his head.
She declined an interview with Global News, as did the lawyer representing the province, Jack Townsend.
In final arguments, Townsend suggested that a license plate does not enjoy the same open, constitutionally-protected free speech rights that one would enjoy in a street or public park. He said it is, and has always been, a regulated form of Crown property that is subject to restrictions and approvals.
He further asked the judge not to give any weight in her decision-making to large portions of testimony from the applicant’s witness: science journalist and former academic researcher Debra Soh, who testified on Wednesday about the likelihood that the plate could stir someone to sexual violence.
Soh, he told the court, offered opinions on matters in which she has no expertise, such as the reasoning why or why not something should be allowed on a licence plate, and how the message on the plate would be linguistically and culturally interpreted.
She used many of her answers, he added, to “advocate” for Grabher’s position, rather than to respond to questions as an impartial expert witness.
Grabher, in the meantime, said he’s looking forward to a resolution to a long and drawn-out process that has put his family through the paces. He told reporters he has persisted in this case as a matter of pride.
“Growing up, I mean when you have a unique name like that and you’re the only one around, our parents always instilled in us, always be proud of who you are, because if your dignity is taken away from you, what else have you got?” he said.
“In the last two years I’ve had more phone calls from different countries and a lot just from our own province here. And I would like to say 90 per cent of the people calling were women and they were on my side. They said, this is ridiculous. It’s your name.”
The judge now has a six-month window to make a decision on this case.