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Print a Leaflet, Go to Jail!

It could be you. BC's Election Act doesn't just throttle the big spenders.

By Vincent Gogolek 23 Apr 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Vincent Gogolek is policy director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

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Ad rules go way too far.

The B.C. Supreme Court may have eliminated the restrictions on how much you can spend before the start of the election campaign -- but the real outrage is how little you have to spend during the campaign to get into serious trouble under the Election Act.

Would you believe no money at all?

According to Elections BC's website, "Election advertising sponsors must be registered with the Chief Electoral Officer, even if the election advertising they are conducting does not cost any money."

This is a big difference from the Canada Elections Act, on which the B.C. law is based. The federal law doesn't even permit you to register as an election advertiser until you have spent at least $500. The logic behind the federal approach appears to be that nobody is going to buy an election by spending less than $500, so why restrict everybody's freedom of speech?

In the debate last spring over Bill 42, the Election Act, the attorney general claimed that the bill was simply implementing the recommendations of a 2006 report from the chief electoral officer. But nowhere in that report is there a word about requiring anyone spending less than $500 to register with the government.

Oppal's illogic

A.G. Wally Oppal has repeatedly justified the restrictions on freedom of expression by raising the danger of "big spenders" buying the election.

In the debate on Bill 42, he quoted the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in the Harper case against the federal Elections Act: "Without the limits, a few wealthy groups could drown out others in debates on important political issues."

"We agree with that," Oppal stated, "and that is why we are setting reasonable limits on what third parties can spend."

He seems to think that the requirement to register for spending no money at all is a "reasonable limit," and that anybody who doesn't register with the government before photocopying a letter about an issue that concerns them and putting it in their neighbours' mailboxes should be facing big fines and jail time.

Under the sweeping definition of "advertising" in this law, if you spend five dollars photocopying a flyer about an issue and hang it on some poles in your neighbourhood, you are an "election advertising sponsor." You don't have to be advocating for a particular party or candidate, and you don't have to be attempting to influence the outcome of the election. You only need to take a position "on an issue with which a registered political party or candidate is associated" to have these restrictions and penalties apply.

Arrest that advertiser!

As an "advertiser," you are required by law to register with Elections BC. If you don't register, your speech is illegal and there will be consequences, maybe even jail.

Under this law, freedom of speech is a privilege, not a right.

This law deliberately targets the involved, active citizen that every democracy is supposed to be encouraging. At a time when voter participation is falling, it is unjustifiable and profoundly destructive to democracy.

It poses a real danger to citizens and small groups who may spend a few dollars communicating with their neighbours but have no idea their actions may fall under the very broad and vague definition of "election advertising." The danger is real because there are very serious penalties for violations, and at least two small groups have already been warned by Elections BC about potential violations.

This law must be changed. The Supreme Court of British Columbia has twice struck down sections related to spending limits, but no one has seen fit to challenge the sections requiring everyone to register before expressing themselves about possibly political issues.

That is why we, in association with a number of other groups, have started the Free to Speak Campaign and are urging the citizens of this province to undertake an act of "civil obedience" by registering as election advertising sponsors. In this way you can send a message to those responsible for this attempt to stifle your freedom of expression, without worrying you may have to pay a huge fine or go to jail if you put up a website or print some leaflets about an issue you care about.

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