When in doubt, limit free speech.
That’s the kneejerk reaction of many politicians when it comes to citizens engaging in political advertising, especially if the advertising in question is “negative.”
Simply put, some politicians don’t like to be criticized or to have their foibles exposed.
Just consider, for instance, how certain opposition MPs reacted to an ad attacking interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, an ad that the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative advocacy group, produced and posted on YouTube.
The NCC ad is pretty much standard fare as far as attack ads go: It features photos of Mr. Rae plastered on the screen, ominous music playing in the background and a narrator warning about the former Ontario premier’s less than stellar fiscal record.
So far it has not appeared on TV, just on YouTube. Yet it has generated an outcry.
Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis said the NCC attack is indirectly supporting Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“Although we might not be able to trace it and put a finger back on him, definitely like-minded individuals want Harper to succeed, and they see Rae as a threat,” he told The Hill Times, adding: “This is where we need legislation that says that anything spent in order to do character assassination, to portray, to move a particular leader before a campaign should be accountable for them during the campaign.”
This view was backed up by NDP MP Joe Comartin, who says “third-party spending” in between elections should be reviewed.
Of course, when politicians say they want to “review” third-party spending or make it more “accountable,” what they really mean is that they want it censored and controlled.
Indeed, sadly, political speech in Canada is already censored and controlled.
That’s because our laws impose severe legal restrictions on how much money citizens or independent groups can spend on “political advertising” during federal elections.
According to the law, “political advertising” includes any ads that support or oppose a political party or candidate or which simply take a stand on any issue that might be associated with any political party or candidate.
In short, it’s a gag law that makes it virtually impossible for unions, environmental groups, church organizations, taxpayer advocates or any group or individual to effectively or freely express political opinions at election time – the most crucial period of any democracy.
Or to put it another way, gag laws give politicians and political parties a monopoly on election debate. Everyone else has to shut up and watch from the political sidelines.
And now it sounds like Mr. Karygiannis and Mr. Comartin want to extend the gag law so that it’s in effect between elections, silencing Canadians the rest of the time, too.
This would terrible for our democracy. In a free society, citizens should have the right to engage in the marketplace of ideas. They should have the right to criticize political parties and politicians. And they should be allowed to buy political ads to get their point across.
Is the NCC’s ad “indirectly” helping Mr. Harper by attacking Mr. Rae? Perhaps. Maybe it’s helping Liberals who will one day oppose Mr. Rae in a leadership race. Or maybe it will have no impact at all.
The point is, the political consequences of the ad should be irrelevant. Nor should it matter that the ad is negative. All that does matter is that the NCC, and indeed all Canadians, should have the right to engage in the political process through advertising, even if thin-skinned politicians don’t like it.
After all, free political expression is a core democratic freedom.
Gerry Nicholls is editor of Freedomforum.ca and a former senior officer in the National Citizens Coalition.