Gerry Nicholls, formerly of the National Citizen’s Coalition, recently gave a speech on gag laws at the Canadian Center for Policy Studies. The speech can be read at Libertas Post. Here are the money ‘graphs:
The reason I want to discuss this legal tiff this morning is that illustrates why gag laws are wrong, why gag laws are dangerous and why all Canadians who cherish free speech should work to have gag laws repealed.
Let me first begin my discussion by defining the gag law. The gag law is technically part of the Canada Elections Act. This section essentially imposes severe legal restrictions on how much money citizens or independent groups can spend on “political advertising” during federal elections.
In other words, this law makes if virtually impossible for citizens to effectively express political opinions during elections – the most crucial period of any democracy.
Or to put it another way, the gag law gives politicians and political parties a monopoly on election debate — everybody else has to shut up.
The NCC had always opposed gag laws. We see them as an infringement on free expression. Indeed, they infringe on the most important type of expression: election speech.
If you don’t have free speech during elections, then you don’t have truly free elections and if you don’t have truly free elections you don’t have a true democracy.
That’s why we believe elections should be a free market place of competing ideas.
The Interim has opposed gag laws since its inception in 1983 (the same year the first gag laws were proposed by Pierre Trudeau). Here is an editorial the paper ran when the Mulroney government amended its gag law legislation in 1988. Gerry Nicholls says that it is precisely during elections that issues need to be raised, but as we editorialized two decades ago, the intention of the gag laws is to reduce the ability of third parties to raise issues during an election campaign:
The law was rushed through Parliament, with the approval of all three political parties, in 1983. It was intended to prevent groups involved in social issues including capital punishment, free trade, foreign aid and of course, abortion, from having any substantial impact on the course of the election.
The Interim said that one problem with the law is the chilling effect its strictures have on so-called special interest groups: “The fear is that the threat of prosecution may be used to prevent such groups from advertising once the election is called.” That is, those with something to add to the public discourse will self-censor to avoid coming into conflict with the law.
Stephen Harper’s name is on a legal challenge to the constitutionality of gag laws and there was hope that he would act to remove them from the books after he formed the government. Nearly four years and two mandates later, they are still in effect, limiting the rights of Canadians from raising issues during election campaigns. For pro-lifers, this is especially problematic. With the media effectively ignoring abortion issues in Canada, pro-life groups have limited opportunities to get the public to think about the topic.