24 Hours Vancouver: Political expression isn’t ‘criminal’: group

By Stefania Seccia

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Vincent Gogolek, B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director, and his group are challenging the B.C. Election Act in court.<br />
(File photo)Freedom of speech is at stake during provincial and municipal campaigns, according to a Vancouver-based advocacy group that’s taken the issue to the province’s top court.

The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association was in court Friday appealing a decision last year that denied the advocacy group’s constitutional challenge to a section of the B.C. Election Act – which requires everyone to register with the province before doing any kind of third-party election “advertising.”

That means if someone within an election campaign period makes or wears a related t-shirt, for example, or posts a public sign stating a related opinion, must register as election “advertisers” or risk facing a $10,000 fine or up to a year in jail.

B.C. is the only province in Canada that requires third-party election “advertisers” to register with authorities with no minimum amount that must be spent on the advertising, according to Vincent Gogolek, B.C. FIPA executive director.

“What the government has done is imposed a ban on political expression with criminal penalties,” he said.

Most provinces have a minimum $500 registration threshold for advertising expenditures.

“It’s had the effect of actually restricting free speech,” he said. “People have shut down websites, refused to comment because they’re intimidated by the law.”

But the B.C. Attorney General argued the mandatory registration and identification provisions “ensure that during the campaign period leading up to a fixed date election … the electorate is able to determine who is doing the speaking.”

“This ability to identify the speaker and their message is key to fulfilling the goals of promoting transparency, openness and public accountability in the electoral process and encouraging an informed electorate,” it stated in its respondent letter.

“Freedom of expression works both ways – to protect the speaker and to protect the listener.”

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association filed as an intervener in the case because it said the act as it stands “constitutes a serious intrusion upon both freedom of expression and privacy interests.”

“The infringement is all the more worrisome when enacted under an umbrella of electoral regulation that has as its only justifications the preservation of confidence in the electoral system, and preventing the voices of the wealthy from drowning out all others,” it stated in its intervener letter.

“It is also about the importance of privacy and anonymity in permitting an effective voice for unpopular or under-represented views during an election campaign.”

Accessed February 16, 2015 from http://vancouver.24hrs.ca/2015/02/15/political-expression-isnt-criminal-group