RM Archive - onsite copies of linked stories

RM Issue #030708

Why are we still fighting gag laws?

Claire Hoy National Post Monday, July 07, 2003

The late U.S. politician Adlai Stevenson, in a 1952 presidential campaign speech in Detroit, said this: "My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular."

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien doesn't see it that way. His definition of freedom is a society where people are free to say what he and his senior bureaucrats approve of.

An overstatement? Not really. Not when you consider the ongoing battle between the Chrétien Liberals and the National Citizens' Coalition over the reprehensible election gag law.

To be fair, it's not just Liberals who want to restrict your right to speak out on the issues you think are important. Brian Mulroney's Tory government -- with some backing from all parties -- supported and instituted similar gag laws. Yet despite six separate court rulings since 1984 that these laws violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the government keeps trying to silence anybody who is not associated with one of the mainstream, i.e. government- approved, political parties.

The NCC, which has fought this undemocratic notion since the beginning, is heading back to court again this fall to defend itself against the criminal charge that it violated the law. Lawyers for Elections Canada -- one of the biggest boosters of gagging free speech -- hope to convince a judge that while the law infringes on free expression, as he ruled, it's a "reasonable" and "justified" infringement.

No, it is not.

The idea is to severely restrict the ability of any person or group to spend money during election campaigns promoting a particular point of view. Take abortion, for example. Whether you are for or against it -- the law is an equal- opportunity muzzler -- Chrétien's law not only restricts your ability to advertise your position, but says you must register with Elections Canada if you plan to spend more than $500 on election-time ads. Even then, it is up to Elections Canada to decide whether you will be allowed to run your ads. And since Elections Canada boss Jean Pierre Kingsley is a leading advocate of gag laws, guess what your chances are? Meanwhile, political parties spend hundreds of millions of your tax dollars on their ads.

Why, in a free and democratic society, should any bureaucrat, or any government, have the right to tell you what you want to spend your money on during an election?

The latest gag law, enacted in 2000, is so nasty that violators, if found guilty, face up to five years in jail. For what? For running ads the government doesn't like, or didn't pre-approve of, that's what.

Happily, the government's ability to ride herd on public opinion outside the narrow confines of electoral politics took a serious hit late last month with the 9-0 Supreme Court of Canada ruling striking down a law banning fringe political parties from issuing tax receipts to donors and transferring unspent election funds from candidates to the party, the same privileges the big-name political parties enjoy but want to keep to themselves at the expense of free democratic discourse.

That ruling in effect suspended the law for a year to give Parliament time to create a less intrusive method to cut benefits to the fringe political parties, but Mr. Justice Frank Iacobucci, writing for six of the judges, said: "Legislation with such harmful effects would be difficult to justify." The court also stated what should be an obvious truism that, "the free flow of diverse opinions and ideas is of fundamental importance in a free and democratic society."

For nearly 20 years, various courts have said the same thing about election gag laws, but that hasn't stopped politicians from re-introducing new laws designed to stifle the free flow of diverse opinions.

It is one thing to have a transparent system of expense reporting so that we know, for example, that a campaign financed by the Friends For Better Baseball Everywhere Society is not just a front for one of the political parties and therefore an underhanded way for them to overspend their quotas.

But it is something else altogether to say to such groups that gee, sorry, the political parties can spend hundreds of millions of your tax dollars pushing their message, but you aren't allowed to spend any more than a pittance pushing yours.

The NCC was actually charged under the gag law during the 2000 federal election when it aired a 15-second television ad to raise public awareness -- and money -- for its court challenge against the law. It wasn't even promoting a particular political party, although the message wasn't exactly an endorsement of Liberal law-making. It was simply arguing that the gag laws are a serious violation of free speech and should be abolished.

That they were dragged into court for such a heinous "crime" makes their case, wouldn't you say?

© Copyright 2003 National Post

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