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Court upholds election rules

A British Columbia judge has upheld a law that requires anyone engaged in political advertising during a provincial election campaign to register, even when little or no money is involved, after concluding the law represents a reasonable infringement on free speech rights.

The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association filed a constitutional challenge of a section of the province's Election Act, which requires people or groups to register with Elections BC before participating in a wide range of activities considered to be third-party advertising.

The association argued the law violates the charter because it applies regardless of how much money is spent, which the group says discourages smaller voices that may not have the means or the wherewithal to navigate the registration process.

The group argued the registration rules should only apply to advertising that costs $500 or more.

A B.C. Supreme Court agreed that the law impedes political speech, but the judge said those effects were offset by the benefits of ensuring transparent elections.

"It is plain that the requirement to register ... would have the effect of restricting spontaneous or unplanned election advertising, which, like other forms of political expression, enriches political discourse," wrote Judge Bruce Cohen.

"The salutary effects of the impugned measure outweigh the deleterious effects," Cohen continued. "The salutary effect of (the law) is that it ... increases the transparency, openness and accountability of B.C.'s electoral process and promotes an informed electorate."

B.C.'s current restrictions on third-party advertising in election and byelection campaigns were introduced in 1995, though they have been revised several times since.

The Election Act requires any person or group that intends to advertise during an election campaign to first register with Elections BC.

In 2009, a B.C. Supreme Court judge struck down another provision in the law that said restrictions on third-party advertising also applied 60 days before the start of the campaign. The ruling was upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal.

The province responded with revisions that included reducing the pre-campaign period to 40 days, but the B.C. Court of Appeal concluded that, too, was unconstitutional.

At the time, the province's limits on third-party advertising were commonly referred to in the media as a "gag law."

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