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Group suing BC over law restricting election speech

An advocacy group is taking the British Columbia government to court in a bid to fix a law it says restricts what people can say during provincial elections.

"You have to register before speaking," said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. "It's just wrong, aside from being unconstitutional."

On Jan. 28, FIPA filed a notice of civil claim in the Supreme Court of B.C. asking it to declare unconstitutional parts of B.C.'s Election Act that require groups or individuals to register if anything they plan to say or distribute during an election period might be considered election advertising.

Other jurisdictions, including Canada and Alberta, don't require people to register until they spend $500 or $1,000 on election advertising, said Gogolek.

But B.C. has no lower limit, he said. The law is intended to restrict big spenders from unduly influencing an election, but "you go through it a few times and you realize there's no floor," he said.

The problem came up during by-elections in 2008 when organizers with a small Vancouver group, Renters at Risk, were threatened with jail time or a $10,000 fine for things they had posted on their website that Elections BC considered to be election advertising.

An Elections BC spokesperson defended the crackdown in an interview with The Tyee at the time, but in 2010 the Chief Electoral Officer recommended the government bring the threshold up to $500 to match the federal government. "Having a consistent registration threshold would prevent the considerable confusion and administrative burden that currently exists," his report said.

A 2010 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report found the B.C. laws were having a "chill effect" on advocacy groups.

Before suing, FIPA asked the government to change the law voluntarily, Gogolek said.

"Should your client choose to bring a constitutional challenge, the government will respond accordingly," wrote justice ministry lawyers Karen Horsman and Karrie Wolfe in a Jan. 11 letter to Sean Hern, the lawyer acting for FIPA. "Until such time, the provisions of the Election Act which require registration of third party election advertisers during the 'campaign period' are presumed to be valid provincial legislation."

Gogolek said he would rather be working on other issues, but will pursue the constitutional challenge if necessary. "It's got to be fixed before this election," he said. "The outrageous thing is we're even having to do this."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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