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Elections Canada’s limits on free speech a sign of the times

There’s nothing more fundamental to the democratic ideal than the freedom to speak one’s mind and sound as wise or foolish as that happens to sound.

The news that environmental groups have been warned their speech will be regulated during the upcoming federal election campaign has finally drawn attention to the stifling impact of the nation’s most recent election legislation.

This latest twist is due to People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, who has expressed doubts about anthropogenic climate science.

Elections Canada has therefore cautioned that the matter is an election issue and those groups or individuals wishing to discuss it – even in a nonpartisan fashion – by spending more than $500 are subject to Bill C-76: the Elections Modernization Act.

So environmental charities and non-profits have to roll up their sleeves, call their lawyers and register as third parties to ensure they’re not found offside on the law – a serious matter.

There’s nothing more fundamental to the democratic ideal than the freedom to speak one’s mind and sound as wise or foolish as that happens to sound. So it seems odd that in the name of preserving democracy, it’s been decided that speech must be fettered.

How, you might ask, did we come to this?

Up until three years ago, there was a lot of excitement about the democratizing impact of the Internet on society. Spontaneous citizen’s movements such as Openmedia, Leadnow and were springing up like blossoms in the Arab Spring. Petitions were launched, Barack Obama was president of the United States and Hillary Clinton had launched her campaign for the White House online.

Finally, there was a way around the gatekeepers – legacy media such as newspapers and broadcasters – that traditionally stood between people with ideas and the public at large. Those who suspected the members of the media were controlled by conservative power brokers were empowered by net neutrality and so were those convinced that most media carry a heavy bias against conservative ideas.

Petitions were launched and policies implemented as a result of online activity – much of it on Facebook and Twitter. Still more people discovered they no longer had to fight their way through the rigorous letters-to-the-editor gauntlet to get their point of view out there.

It all seemed so wonderful.

Never mind that only a small minority of the population is engaged with Twitter on a daily basis. Traditional media decision-makers increasingly began to see it as a reflection of their world and what is and isn’t popular.

Realizing how very easy it had become to stampede a naive media herd, manipulators moved in.

And then Donald J. Trump became president of the United States and Britons voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. Those on the losing end of those votes – who once saw the Internet as the Great Democratizer where the will of the people would be heard – began to view it not as the promise of liberty but as a threat to it. The will of the people had been replaced by something called populism.

Upon investigation, it was discovered that ‘bots’ were used to embellish the popularity of certain media-influencing trends on Twitter and that people based in Russia had paid for social media advertising during the 2015 American elections.

And so here we are, wrapped up in a well-intended set of rules (it was already illegal for non-Canadians to buy political ads) so vast and a bar so low that an immense administrative burden has been passed along to innocent bystanders – groups and individuals.

More so, it has convinced many large media such as Google and Amazon to refuse any political advertising. The public square is smaller and Elections Canada is doing absolutely nothing wrong here – just applying the law as Parliament designed it.

This seems to have caught even those who supported Bill C-76, off guard – such as Skeena–Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen.

“With all due respect to the good and wise people at Elections Canada – it’s idiotic to suggest that anyone stating the facts of the climate crisis we’re in is just being partisan just because Max Bernier denies basic science,” he tweeted. “EC should reconsider its advice IMHO.”

It may be a good point, but which positions are idiotic and which ones aren’t used to be decided freely and solely by citizens in a voting booth. As we say on Twitter, #goodtimes.

Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC. Although he advises tech companies on regulatory policy, the views here are his own.

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