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Lorne Grabher displays his personalized licence plate in Dartmouth, N.S., in a March 24, 2017, file photo.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge has dismissed a claim by a man who says the province infringed on his freedom of expression when it revoked a licence plate personalized with his surname: Grabher.

The Nova Scotia plate Lorne Grabher had for nearly 30 years was revoked in 2016 by the province’s Registrar of Motor Vehicles after the agency received a complaint from a woman who said it promoted hatred toward women.

In a 50-page decision released Friday, Justice Darlene Jamieson said there is no constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression in a government-owned, personalized licence plate.

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The judge said licence plates are not “public spaces” with a history of free expression, adding she doesn’t believe people expect unlimited access to free expression on them. The fact the government has allowed limited access to the space does not make it a public space, she said.

However, Justice Jamieson said her ruling should not be taken to imply there is anything wrong with Grabher’s name.

“This decision is not about whether Mr. Grabher’s surname is offensive – it is not,” she wrote. “The decision is not intended in any way to diminish the importance of Mr. Grabher’s surname or the pride that Mr. Grabher and his family take and should take in their name and heritage.”

Justice Jamieson said the registrar recalled the plate because the seven letters “GRABHER” could be interpreted as a socially unacceptable statement without the benefit of further context that licence plates can’t provide.

“The primary function of a licence plate is not expression but is identification and regulation of vehicle ownership,” Justice Jamieson wrote. “A licence plate by its very nature is a private government space.”

Justice Jamieson said Mr. Grabher failed to establish that the registrar’s decision limited his equality rights and concluded its decision to revoke the plate was justified under provincial motor vehicle regulations.

Under the regulations, the 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 not in good taste.

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The Nova Scotia decision follows one in Manitoba last October when Queen’s Bench Justice Sheldon Lanchbery ruled it was reasonable for Manitoba Public Insurance to revoke a Star Trek fan’s ASIMIL8 plate after receiving a complaint that it was offensive to Indigenous people.

Justice Lanchbery ruled it was reasonable to take back Nick Troller’s plate because the word is connected to the Indigenous experience and government policies of forced assimilation.

Mr. Grabher declined to comment Friday, but his lawyer said the court ruling would be reviewed before deciding on a possible appeal.

“I think that there are a number of problematic aspects to it,” said Jay Cameron of the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

He pointed to part of the Manitoba ruling in which the judge found that in permitting limited expression on personalized plates, the regulator had authorized a new location where free expression is entitled to protection – a finding Justice Jamieson noted and disagreed with in her ruling.

Mr. Cameron also said that Justice Jamieson “basically ignored” the fact that Mr. Grabher had been issued the plate for nearly 30 years without objections being raised.

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“What is the rationale for giving a bureaucrat the authority to take away the expression of somebody’s last name, when for 27 years it hasn’t caused a problem before?” he asked.

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