Canada is Free and Freedom is Its Nationality

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Monday, December 7, 2009

Event Blogging the Free Speech and Liberty Symposium: Suppressing Dissent

Please Note: This is a summary of the events and speeches in my own words for educational, information, and entertainment purposes only. It is not the speakers' exact words and should not be taken as such. It also may contain errors due to the nature of the medium. I am not responsible for any of them, use at your own risk and consult the official audio record if you want to verify or quote anything.

Gerry Nicholls is former VP National Citizens Coalition (NCC) and Editor of Libertas Post. As a senior executive with the NCC, Canada’s largest organization for the defence of economic and political freedoms, he was the chief creative force behind the organization’s communication campaigns.

Freedom of speech is very important.

His legal theory is never get in trouble with the law. He is a very law abiding citizen

On Nov 28, 2001 RCMP officer came to his office to charge the NCC with a crime. They said that they had violated the election gag law. This is a bad and dangerous law which free speechers should oppose.

This law puts limits on how much money citizens or organizations can spend on political advertising during elections. It gives politicians a monopoly on election debates. We were always opposed to it because if we don't have free speech in elections we don't have free elections.

The NCC has gone to court multiple times and succeeded in getting it declared unconstitutional. Stephen Harper was the President of NCC and was so opposed to this law that he personally brought a challenge to the government about the matter.

TheNCC wanted to win this debate in the court of public opinion as well as in the courts so they ran a series of ads in Oct 2000, to coincide with their court dates. By coincidence, there was a federal election at the same time. This posed a dilemma.

The law is very vague. Any ad that takes a stand supporting or opposing a political party or candidate or taking a stand on an issue that is connected to a party falls under this legislation. The NCC decided that this wasn't an issue that was connected to a party. They even took it to a Constitutional lawyer who gave it the green light.

As it happened, a Liberal saw the ad and turned it in to Elections Canada. However it took them over a year to lay charges against the NCC. He suggests that this might have been to embarrass Harper on the eve of running for leadership of the Canadian Alliance (Harper had called the head of Elections Canada a jackass during their election gag law debates). He might be called paranoid to even bring up the question because Elections Canada is a government department, it is impartial and doesn't hold grudges.

However, another story. During one election campaign the wheat board ran an ad on an election issue against the Conservatives, This was declared okay. Suggests that there might be bias because Elections Canada used a strict definition of the law for the wheat board and a loose standard for the NCC ad.

When you have a law that is vaguely worded it gives the government licence to go after people they just don't happen to like.

People claim that HRC have no due process. Even when there is due process this stuff is not a walk in the park. Elections Canada used every trick in the book to drag it out. The NCC lawyer said he had never seen anything like it. In the end it cost about $100,000.

There was also a psychological effect. Another time when they were threatened they decided to pull the questionable ad instead of fighting because they didn't want to go through that again.

It creates a chill. People will self-censor and not run any political ads during an election because they don't know if it will break law.

Now courts have said that the gag law is constitutional.

To end on a positive note:

The internet is outside the jurisdiction of Election Canada so encourage people to run ads there.

We now have allies on the left because the Conservatives are in power and Liberals don't like censorship when the shoe is on the other foot.

Our third reason for optimist is the PM who is very much opposed to election gag laws. It is disappointing that he hasn't done anything about it. He has had a minority but he will probably have a majority soon so we need to encourage him.

Q1 Would you consider in the lead up to the next election encouraging newspapers to run ads as editorials?

A1 Yes that would be legal although newspapers can't give free advertising to get around election gag order. If it was an op-ed it would be legal.

Q2 If there is no gag law how would you deal with big money using sophisticated manipulation to influence people?
A2 He rejects the premise that a lot of money can influence people. People are intelligent enough to see the issues. Campaigns can outspend their opponents and still lose.

Q3 There are many things that Elections Canada has done to cripple democracy.

A3 Yes, we have had many run-ins with Elections Canada. They play hardball and they play for keeps.

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