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A gas pump displays an anti-carbon tax sticker in Toronto on Aug. 29, 2019.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s mandatory gas-pump stickers targeting the federal government’s carbon tax are a form of “compelled speech” that violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a judge has ruled.

The stickers, which Ontario required on all gas pumps last year, warn drivers that the “Federal Carbon Tax Will Cost You,” and show the cost of the charge on a graph swooping upward. Critics said the stickers were misleading, taxpayer-subsidized partisan ads, rolled out as a federal election loomed. And the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) took the Ford government to court over the issue.

In a decision released on Friday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ed Morgan sided with the CCLA, saying the stickers are not meant to convey important government information about gas prices – but are instead designed to make “a partisan argument.”

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Justice Morgan says the stickers mention only the rising price of the carbon tax, while omitting the fact that the federal plan includes a substantial rebate for consumers and other climate-change measures: “That kind of half-truth is not very truthful.”

His decision concludes that the stickers do not fall into an acceptable category of “compelled speech,” such as mandatory no-smoking signs that a government can order businesses to post. Such messages must be public policy information presented in a “neutral voice.”

But in this case, Justin Morgan writes, the stickers’ partisan intentions were made clear by the government itself. He cites Energy Minister Greg Rickford’s comments in the Ontario Legislature last April that the stickers were meant to “stick it to the Liberals.”

“A government or political party can, in the words of Ontario’s Minister of Energy, ‘stick it to’ another tier of government or political party as a matter of free speech in an election campaign or otherwise,” Justice Morgan writes. “But a government cannot legislate a requirement that private retailers post a Sticker designed to accomplish that task. The mandatory fuel pump sticker is an unconstitutional attempt to do just that.”

The Opposition NDP’s energy critic, MPP Peter Tabuns, called for an “immediate commitment” from Mr. Ford that his government will not appeal the decision.

“He has already wasted enough of people’s money on his anti-carbon price stickers that don’t stick – a partisan and dishonest propaganda campaign,” Mr. Tabuns said in a statement.

Alex Puddifant, a spokesman for Mr. Rickford, criticized the carbon tax, saying it makes life more unaffordable for families and small businesses. He said the government would “respect the decision of the court,” but didn’t directly answer whether it would appeal.

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Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, called the stickers “an incredibly dumb idea that never should have seen the light of day.”

“No government should deliberately mislead the public about something as serious as the climate crisis, much less force businesses to do it for them with heavy-handed, unconstitutional legislation,” he said.

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