British Columbia

Unions taking province to court over 'gag law'

B.C.'s seven largest unions will challenge a controversial law limiting spending in the run-up to the 2009 provincial election.

B.C.'s seven largest unions will challenge a controversial law limiting spending in the run-up to the 2009 provincial election.

The law, formerly known as Bill 42, puts a cap on how much groups can spend on election advertising in the 60 days before the start of an election campaign, as well as the 28 days of the campaign itself.

Irene Lanzinger, president of the BC Teachers' Federation, says the law will stifle the voices of teachers. ((CBC))

The legal challenge is being prepared on behalf of the Canadian Union of Public Employees BC; the British Columbia Teachers' Federation; the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union 378; the BC Nurses' Union; the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union; the Federation of Post Secondary Educators, and the Hospital Employees' Union, as well as the B.C. Federation of Labour.

The groups have called it a "gag law" that violates their constitutional rights.   

"We think that we have certain freedom-of-speech rights and that this legislation is intended to shut down the voices of teachers, nurses, [and] health care workers in the lead-up to the election," said the president of the BC Teachers' Federation, Irene Lanzinger.

"There are no legislative limitations of any sort on the incumbent government, but there are these very significant and unreasonable limitations on any third party," said Leo McGrady, one of the lawyers representing the unions.

"We say that's a serious infringement of the free-speech guarantee of Section 2 of the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]."

The law is out of sync with the Supreme Court of Canada's guidelines on third-party advertising, which limit spending for just one month, McGrady said, adding the definition of advertising in the bill is too broad.

Attorney General Wally Oppal says the law blocks unfair influence during a campaign. ((CBC))

However, B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal said the law is based on those guidelines.

He said the limits create a level playing field and block unfair influence during a campaign. 

"I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who are making some statements that are really over the top," Oppal said.

"Third parties can spend whatever they want … they can spend unlimited amounts of money from right now until the 60-day period prior to the calling of the election. So, I don't think that's unfair at all."

The groups plan to file the challenge in mid-July.

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