License plate censors infantilize women

“My good name” is a phrase people sometimes use to describe their reputation, their integrity, their intrinsic value as human beings. A Dartmouth man, Lorne Grabher is in court this week fighting for the right to display his good name on his Nova Scotia license plate.

You probably know the story. Grabher’s family applied for a vanity plate bearing their surname around 1990. The Registry of Motor Vehicles issued and re-issued the plate without incident through 27 years. Then, in December, 2016, Janice Harland, the province’s Registrar of Motor Vehicles, notified Grabher that the registry had received a complaint about his plate.

“While I recognize this plate was issued as your last name,” Harland wrote, “the public cannot be expected to know this and can misinterpret it as a socially unacceptable slogan.”

Without hearing from Grabher, inviting comment from him, or permitting him to confront the anonymous complainant, Harland revoked the plate. There was no administrative avenue of appeal, so Grabher asked the court to enforce his Charter right to freedom of expression.

In response to Grabher’s application, a brief by the province’s expert witness, Carrie Rentschler, a McGill professor of art history, communication studies, and feminist media studies, advances an argument that can be summarized as follows:

(1) Grabher = grab her. (2) Grab her = grope her. (3) Grabher (read as, “grope her”) is an offensive incitement to sexual violence against women, that will make persons identifying as women feel and be unsafe. (4) Grabher (read as, “grope her”) is not expressive speech, per se, but is “a speech act” that causes offense, thereby crossing a line from “expressive activity to threat.” (5) People who do not find Grabher offensive “would, in turn, be supportive of (or would condone) violence against women.”

After setting forth this remarkable sequence of ideological leaps and bounds, Rentschler’s report quickly devolves into a disquisition on the Access Hollywood tape, in which Donald Trump boasted of grabbing women by the genitals. And with that, an unprepossessing retired corrections officer suddenly becomes a threat to the genitals of Nova Scotia women.

Such reasoning is easy to parody, as Grabher’s expert witness, Debra Soh, a psychologist who has studied male sexual offenders, quickly did, pointing out that the same logic would ban a license plate with the word “together,” because it could be misread as “to get her.”

Sexual violence against women is repugnant. Millions of women attest to its prevalence. This is a severe and pressing problem in our culture, but infantilizing women with demands for state action to suppress expressions based on willful misreadings with no logical, real world connection to the problem does women no service. Worse, it does nothing to tackle the real problem.

And yet, social media in Nova Scotia is alive with furious denunciations of Grabher and his court case, mostly coming from progressives and feminists who ought to know better.

It’s interesting, though, how few of Grabher’s critics try to make the case that suppressing free expression is good public policy. As Rentschler demonstrated, this is hard to do without coming across as a crackpot.

Instead they seize on peripheral arguments:

Vanity plates are silly anyway: Tim Bousquet professes not to, “give a damn about the GRABHER licence plate. Vanity license plates seem like a weird hill to die on, if you ask me.” I don’t care about vanity plates either (although I still display my late mother’s Maine license plate), but free expression is always worth defending, especially by journalists who take pride in their outspokenness.

Right wingers are underwriting Grabher’s lawsuit: This is true, and should embarrass supporters of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association [of which, disclosure, I was once a director]. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms clearly delights in highlighting examples of authoritarian overreach by progressives, which might twig progressives to the fact they’re getting played (unless they believe the Charter should only protect progressive expressions, not right-wing ones).

Grabher is a horrible person: This ad hominem claim is advanced with abundant certitude and an absence of evidence. “Let’s hope Judge Jamieson puts paid to this disingenuous, self-righteous crusade masquerading as a civil rights issue,” writes Margo Grant…. “[H]e thought that “Grabher” was an awfully cute, cheeky vanity plate and when the powers that be didn’t agree he turned it into something else. What a tiresome waste of time and money.”

Grabher is white, and therefor too privileged to need free expression: El Jones points out that many Canadians face discrimination by virtue of their black or Muslim-sounding names. This is a valid point, but hardly an argument for discriminating against Grabher.

Plates belong to the province, so their contents’ are government speech: The province does,  technically, retain theoretical ownership of plates, but having offered them up as a medium of public expression, it can’t arbitrarily ban expressions it deems “unacceptable” based on specious misreadings unhinged from any rational public policy goal.

A revoked plate does not bring Nazi barbarians to the gate: “Oh, spare me,” a former CBC host tweeted at me. “The fact that someone can’t get a vanity plate isn’t creeping fascism or feminism gone mad.” Tweet’s another: “No one is suggesting he be forcibly renamed ‘Smith.’ Let’s not waste too much time wringing our hands about The Wimmen Ruining Everything.” It is true that Grabher’s critics haven’t demanded he change his name. Nor have his defenders alleged the registrar’s decision amounts to “creeping fascism.” But the revocation of his plate plainly infringes Grabher’s freedom of expression, and the Constitution places severe limits on government’s right to do that.

Growing up in the United States in the 1950s, watching family friends lose careers and even face prison because of their progressive views, I allowed myself the conceit that progressives would never behave that way, should they ever have the power to do so. I was wrong. Today’s progressives and feminists are as indifferent to the free expression rights of those they disagree with as Joseph McCarthy’s apologists ever were.