How does one balance transparency with civil liberties in the context of election campaigns? This issue is at the core of a decision just handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada.
B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association v. Attorney-General (B.C.) began as a challenge by the appellant organization to provisions of B.C.’s Election Act that required individuals or organizations who “sponsor election advertising” to register with the Chief Electoral Officer. Information on the register is publicly available. The underlying public policy goals to allow the public to see who is sponsoring advertising campaigns during the course of elections. The Supreme Court of Canada easily found this objective to be “pressing and substantial”.
The challenge brought by the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BCFIPA) was based on the way in which the registration requirement was framed in the Act. The Canada Elections Act also contains a registration requirement, but the requirement is linked to a spending threshold. In other words, under the federal statute, those who spend more than $500 on election advertising are required to register; others are not. The B.C. legislation is framed instead in terms of a general registration requirement for all sponsors of election advertising. BCFIPA’s concern was that this would mean that any individual who placed a handmade sign in their window, who wore a t-shirt with an election message, or who otherwise promoted their views during an election campaign would be forced to register. Not only might this chill freedom of political expression in its own right, it would raise significant privacy issues for individuals since they would have to disclose not just their names, but their addresses and other contact information in the register. Thus, the BCFIPA sought to have the registration requirement limited by the Court to only those who spent more than $500 on an election campaign.
The problem in this case was exacerbated by the position taken by B.C.’s Chief Electoral Officer. In a 2010 report to the B.C. legislature, he provided his interpretation of the application of the legislation. He expressed the view that it did not “distinguish between those sponsors conducting full media campaigns and individuals who post handwritten signs in their apartment windows.” (at para 19). This interpretation of the Election Act was accepted by both the trial judge and at the Court of Appeal, and it shaped the argument before those courts as well as their decisions.
The Supreme Court of Canada took an entirely different approach. They interpreted the language “sponsor election advertising” to mean something other than the expression of political views by individuals. In other words, the statute applied only to those who sponsored election advertising – i.e., those who paid for election advertising to be conducted or who received such services as a contribution. The Court was of the view that the public policy behind registration requirements was generally sound. It found that a legislature could mitigate the impact on freedom of expression by either setting a monetary threshold to trigger the requirement (as is the case at the federal level) or by defining sponsorship to exclude individual expression (as was the case in B.C.). While it is true that the B.C. statute could still capture organized activities involving expenditures of less than $500, and might thus have some limiting effect, the Court found that this would not be significant for a number of reasons, and that such impacts were easily reconcilable with the benefits of the registration scheme.
The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada will be useful in clarifying the scope and impact of the Election Act and in providing guidance for similar statutes. It should be noted however, that the case traveled to the Supreme Court of Canada at great cost both to BCFIPA and to the taxpayer because of either legislative inattention to the need to clarify the scope of the legislation or because of an over-zealous interpretation of the statute by the province’s Chief Electoral Officer. The situation highlights the need for careful attention to be paid at the outset of such initiatives to the balance that must be struck between transparency and other competing values such as civil liberties and privacy.