Liberals' gag law struck down again

Manisha Krishnan/North Shore News / Staff writer
October 23, 2012 01:00 AM

The B.C. Supreme Court has once again ruled against a government bid to restrict political advertising before elections - a decision being hailed as a win for democracy amongst educators in the province.

The so-called "gag law" was an amendment to the Election Act, aimed to limit third-party ad spending to $150,000 in the 40 days prior to a 28-day political campaign.

The B.C. Liberals brought their latest incarnation of the law directly to the Court of Appeal only to have it rejected on grounds of unconstitutionality.

"We are quite pleased with the ruling," said Susan Lambert, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation. "We recognize as teachers the need to preserve the space for democratic discussions to happen especially around an election."

The teachers' federation challenged the original gag law after the Liberals passed it in 2008 restricting advertising for 60-days prior to a campaign. The Supreme Court later deemed the law to be an unnecessary infringement of freedom of expression. The Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion.

In the latest decision, Justice P.D. Lowry said the amendments do not go far enough in altering limitations on third-party spending or specifying what constitutes election advertising.

"Given that this court has held the earlier amendments to be constitutionally invalid principally because of the over-breadth of the definition of election advertising, it is difficult to see on what basis the current amendments could be said to be constitutionally sound in respect to the same period when they contain essentially the same definition," he said.

The government said it would not appeal the latest decision. The law was an attempt to address imbalances in jurisdictions with fixed elections, said Shirley Bond, Minister of State and Attorney General, in a written statement.

"We argued that a fair and equitable process is necessary to prevent those individuals and organizations with the most wealth from dominating the discussion."

But critics, such as the teachers' federation, feel differently.

"The motivation seemed to be to curtail public debate that would amount to protecting from scrutiny government actions," said Lambert. "It's quite an indictment a government wanted to throw away public tax dollars on court challenges of basic democratic charter-guaranteed rights."

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