How a court battle over 'Grabher' licence plate reflects wider societal debate
Scholar describes the licence plate as potentially harmful 'speech act'
When Lorne Grabher bought a personalized licence plate for his father 30 years ago, he thought it would make for a fine tribute to his family's Austrian-German heritage.
But the Nova Scotia plate — "GRABHER" — has instead sparked a heated debate between prominent academics about freedom of expression and "rape culture."
In 2016, the province's Registrar of Motor Vehicles revoked the plate after the agency received a complaint from a woman who said it promoted hatred toward women.
Grabher has since filed a civil lawsuit to get the plate reinstated, arguing the province is squelching freedom of expression for all the wrong reasons.
His court case, being heard this week in Halifax, has become a battleground in a debate ongoing in the wider society.
A scholar who specializes in feminist media studies says the plate should be banned because it promotes "rape culture."
Carrie Rentschler, a communications studies professor at McGill University in Montreal, testified in Nova Scotia Supreme Court on Thursday. She was asked by the province to draft an expert report, which forms the backbone of the province's case.
"It is my opinion that the vanity plate in question can contribute to the social conditions in which gender violence is reproduced," Rentschler wrote in her report.
She described the plate as a potentially harmful "speech act," which refers to the idea that words do more than name things — they can also do things and have effects.
"The speech act 'Grabher' can be located on the continuum of sexual violence, as a form of communication like catcalling, verbal harassment and verbal threats of gender violence," Rentschler wrote.
She said the plate signifies support and encouragement of physical violence against girls and women because it can be interpreted as a command that targets a particular class of people.
Women and girls could reasonably find the plate upsetting and potentially threatening, the report says.
"Someone may say, 'Grabher' is just my name,' but for others, it is a statement of support in favour of grabbing women that is a clear example of rape culture," Rentschler wrote.
As well, Rentschler said words carry more weight when they are placed on government-sanctioned licence plates.
"The power of the potential offence in the statement 'Grabher' ... is conferred not only by the owner of the car but also by the authority of the province, which amplifies and legitimates the speech act and its misogynist and sexual-violence supportive meanings," she wrote.
On Wednesday, former sex researcher Debra Soh told the court the plate does not promote sexual violence against women, because the phrase "Grabher" would have no impact on the average, socially adjusted person.
Soh said she wouldn't expect anyone to act in a sexually violent way after seeing the plate unless they were anti-social and already predisposed to such behaviour.
"A licence plate on the road is not going to be a risk factor as to whether someone commits an offence," said Soh, a science journalist and commentator with 11 years of experience conducting academic research on male sexuality.
In an expert report aimed at rebutting Rentschler's report, Soh said "there is no evidence that Canada is a 'rape culture' or a 'culture supportive of violence."'
To prove her point, she cited Statistics Canada figures showing the most severe forms of sexual offences in Nova Scotia had decreased between 2016 and 2017.
"There is no evidence that "GRABHER" on a licence plate is causative of rape or promotes rape culture," Soh wrote.
"It is a stretch to assume that the phrase encourages physical contact without a woman's consent. ... One could imagine any number of circumstances in which grabbing an individual could be a positive experience; for example in an instance of playfulness."
Rentschler noted that governments, particularly in the United States, routinely deny or revoke licence plates due to obscenity and vulgarity.
However, Soh said the Quebec government approved two requests from a man in Baie-Comeau who in September received personalized plates reading: "PENIS" and "ANUS."
The government agency that approved the plates said it routinely bans words that are considered obscene, scandalous or sexual in nature. But it concluded Sylvain Poirier's requests were just biological terms.