B.C. nonprofit groups and rights advocates are criticizing a provincial law on third-party political advertising for threatening the free speech of smaller organizations.
The rules impose maximum spending limits on election advertising in an effort to stop groups with deep pockets from dominating public debate during the campaign period.
However, the legislation has caused concern for smaller groups who are unclear if the routine messages they send the public fit the broad definition of election advertising.
Elections B.C., which enforces the rules, says the definition could cover communication via websites, social media, or email, as well as traditional methods like print and radio.
The rules also contain penalties including fines and prison time for groups that engage in sponsoring election advertising without first registering with Elections B.C.
The Sierra Club B.C. has decided, based on legal advice, to not register as an official third-party election advertiser out of fear it could jeopardize its status as a charity.
Under federal law, registered charities are prohibited from conducting any partisan political activity.
Sarah Cox, Sierra Club B.C. interim executive director, said the group has instead decided to self-censor during the election campaign period.
Cox said the nonprofit environmental group will be limiting what it publishes through its website, email, and newsletter until after the May 14 vote.
“It’s certainly curtailed our ability to communicate to the public about environmental issues in this campaign. We’ll be back on May 15,” Cox told the Straight.
The provincial rules apply to individuals or groups who are not political parties, candidates, or riding associations.
Under the legislation, the definition of election advertising includes messages that take a position on parties, candidates, or political issues in the campaign.
However, there are exceptions for material published in newspapers, broadcast in newscasts, and personal political views shared online, among others.
Like the Sierra Club B.C., the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society B.C. has also decided to not register with Elections B.C.
Executive director Nicola Hill said the nonprofit conservation group has opted to restrict what it says to the public until after the election.
“For an organization like ours, because we do so much public education and engagement and we’re active around the province, we decided that we would have to limit our communication during the election period which is unfortunate because I think you want those voices to be heard during an election,” Hill told the Straight.
The provincial legislation, which was also in place during the 2009 general election, has been condemned by rights groups.
In January, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association launched a constitutional challenge of the law.
The group has argued against the requirement for “small spenders” to register with Elections B.C. and called for exemptions for such groups, as in other jurisdictions.
“Our political speech is the most highly protected type of speech that we have and it’s being restricted during the time when we choose our leaders for the next period of time,” association executive director Vincent Gogolek told the Straight.
Justice Minister Shirley Bond could not be reached for comment.
According to Elections B.C., there are more than 250 registered third-party election advertising sponsors so far during this election campaign period.
Nola Western, deputy chief electoral officer, said the provincial agency has made efforts to inform groups about the rules and will work with them to help them comply.