Poorly designed third party advertising rules chilled election debate, reduced voter access to information: Study

October 6, 2010

(Vancouver) A new study finds that BC’s third party advertising rules caused extensive problems for “small spenders” such as non-profits and charities during the 2009 provincial election. The rules – brought in through the controversial Bill 42 in 2008 – led to widespread confusion, wasted resources, anxiety and self-censorship among organizations that spent little or nothing at all on election advertising.

The study was released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and the BC Civil Liberties Association . “When the provincial government introduced these new rules, its rationale was to limit election advertising by ‘big spenders’, ” says Shannon Daub, lead author of the study. “But major flaws in the legislation mean that in practice, the rules extensively regulated small spenders and cast a chill on the democratic process.”

The study examined the experiences of 60 charities, non-profits, coalitions, labour unions and citizens’ groups – most of which have annual budgets under $500,000. Among the key findings:

  • Because most non-profits are careful to remain non-partisan, the prospect of being publicly labeled as a “third party advertising sponsor” created anxiety for many of the study participants, with some simply choosing to opt-out of public engagement during the election entirely.
  • More than one in four participant groups self-censored as a result of the rules. Six groups censored public communication activities specifically to avoid having to register as advertising sponsors. Others self-censored due to confusion and/or concerns about the risks of inadvertently breaking the rules.
  • Most of the activities groups censored had little to do with commercial advertising. For example, nine groups did not post new material on their websites; four removed existing material from their websites; and four refrained from issuing or endorsing a call for changes to government policy.
  • Particularly troubling is the revelation that five groups avoided commenting in mainstream media stories due to confusion about the rules or a desire to keep a low profile during the campaign and avoid coming to the attention of Elections BC.
  • An analysis of the disclosure reports filed by the 232 organizations registered as third party sponsors during the 2009 provincial election revealed that more than half (59%) spent less than $500 during the campaign period.  More than three quarters spent well below even the $3,000 limit for a single constituency.

“The chill effect these rules created went well beyond activities that we would normally think of as advertising, and cast a shadow on quintessential forms of democratic participation and free speech,” says study co-author, Heather Whiteside.

“The citizens of British Columbia were deprived of the full range of voices that would normally be heard during an election as a result of these rules,” says Micheal Vonn, Policy Director with the BC Civil Liberties Association. “Speech rights are our most precious freedom, and are never more vital than during elections.”

“The Supreme Court of Canada has said that carefully designed limits on third party advertising are acceptable, given the objective of electoral fairness – of making sure that those who can afford to spend big bucks on advertising don’t drown out others,” says Vince Gogolek, a board member with the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “But these rules heavily regulated small spenders – the very groups that should benefit from third party advertising limits.”

“Many of the non-profits and charities that took part in this research represent the interests of society’s most vulnerable citizens,” says Whiteside. “For these groups to be self-censoring during an election, when their perspectives and voices are most needed, is disturbing.”

The study comes the week before the BC Court of Appeal hears the province’s appeal of March 2009 BC Supreme Court decision that upheld limits on third party spending, but rejected the government’s extension of limits to an additional 60-day “pre-campaign period.”

The study’s authors recommend a series of changes to the rules that would make them more effective, including:

  • Establish minimum spending thresholds of $1,000 in a single constituency and $5,000 province-wide before the requirement to register as an advertising sponsor kicks in. Currently, groups and individuals are required to register even if they engage only in free or very low-cost activities.
  • Revise the definition of election advertising so it is easier to interpret and adequately deals with the realities of online communication.
  • Exempt volunteer labour from the definition of an election advertising expense (as is the case for political party and candidate expenses).
  • Exempt charities from the rules altogether, as they must already demonstrate they are non-partisan and make a contribution to the public good in order to achieve and keep registered charity status.


To arrange an interview, call Terra Poirier, 604-801-5121 x229. The study Election Chill Effect is available at www.policyalternatives.ca.