The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld a British Columbia law that forces people to register before sponsoring political advertising during a provincial election, even when little or no money is spent.
But the high court's 7-0 ruling Thursday makes it clear the law doesn't apply to someone who wears a T-shirt with a political slogan or slaps a bumper sticker on their car.
Section 239 of the province's Election Act requires sponsors of election advertising during a campaign period to register their name, telephone number and address with B.C.'s chief electoral officer.
Failure to register could result in a year behind bars and a fine of up to $10,000.
The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association challenged the provision, saying it amounted to an absolute ban on unregistered advertising that violated the charter right to freedom of expression.
In 2014, a trial judge found the section of the law in question infringed freedom of expression, but declared the violation a justifiable one under the charter.
The following year the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed the non-profit association's challenge of that ruling, prompting an appeal to the Supreme Court.
In its arguments to the high court, the association said the Election Act provision would cover even the display of a home-made sign in a window or a car bumper sticker.
The association pointed out that the province's chief electoral officer had concerns about the law's scope. In 2010 the electoral officer told the legislature the provision was causing "considerable confusion and administrative burden" due to the lack of a threshold for registration.
The association therefore advocated an exception for those spending less than $500 on election advertising. It noted that $500 is the standard threshold in similar legislation across the country, except for Alberta, where it is $1,000.
The B.C. attorney general countered that someone who merely put up a hand-drawn poster would not have to register under the Election Act provision.
In its ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed.
"In my view, the Act does not catch small-scale election advertising of this nature," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote on behalf of the court.
She said the Election Act limits the registration requirement to "sponsors" – individuals and organizations who receive advertising services from others in undertaking election ad campaigns.
"Individuals who neither pay others to advertise nor receive advertising services without charge are not 'sponsors,'" she wrote.
"They may transmit their own points of view, whether by posting a handmade sign in a window, or putting a bumper sticker on a car, or wearing a T-shirt with a message on it, without registering."
The association welcomed the ruling – despite the fact its case was dismissed – for making it clear the law won't apply to those who merely express their own views during the next B.C. campaign.
"People will be able to express themselves in the coming election without fear of jail or fines," said Vincent Gogolek, the association's executive director.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press