Justice Centre applies to intervene on behalf of Charter freedoms against Alberta election gag law

The Justice Centre has filed an application to intervene in the case of Rebel News Network v. Election Commissioner of Alberta, to argue for freedom of expression.

Rebel News Network Ltd. (Rebel Media) is a national online and video-based media company that reports current events and provides commentary on newsworthy topics.  In 2018, Rebel Media displayed a billboard on the side of Highway 2 between Calgary and Red Deer, which featured Alberta’s Minister of Education, David Eggen, Premier Rachel Notley, and the website “www.FireEggen.ca.” The billboard ad stated: “40% of Grade 9 Students Failed Provincial Exams – Alberta can do Better than David Eggen.”

On January 14, 2019, Alberta’s Election Commissioner, Lorne R. Gibson, wrote to The Rebel Media stating that it had violated Alberta’s Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act by engaging in “political advertising” without first registering as a third party advertiser with Elections Alberta.  

The Act defines “political advertising” to include an advertising message that takes a position on an issue with which any member of the Legislature is associated.  This applies at all times, 365 days per year, not just during elections.  Non-profit advocacy groups must register with the government if they wish to spend more than $1,000 on advertising, and must publicly disclose the names of citizens who donate more than $250 towards advertising.  The law removes the privacy of citizens wanting to donate for advertising on any “issue” that is “associated” with any party or candidate.  Practically speaking, these restrictions on advertising cover advocacy about education, health care, human rights, taxes, labour laws, social services, and a long list of other important topics on which political parties take a stance.

On January 22, 2019, The Rebel Media filed an Originating Application for judicial review of the Commissioner’s ruling, challenging the reasonableness of the decision and the constitutionality of sections 9.1, 44.1(1)(g) and 49.1 of the Act. 

If granted leave to intervene, the Justice Centre intends to make submissions which focus on the known and foreseeable impact of the challenged legislative provisions, including the chilling effect on political expression and the infringement of the right of citizens to hear such expression, and the resulting impact on the free and democratic society.

The Justice Centre has challenged the constitutional validity of legislation and has successfully defended Charter freedoms in cases involving decisions by school boards, public libraries, universities, student unions, human rights commissions, municipal and provincial governments and self-regulated professional bodies exercising statutory authority. 

“Canada is a liberal democratic state that jealously guards its citizens’ rights to free expression, which must include expression that is critical of government and advocates on matters of public policy,” stated Justice Centre President John Carpay. 

A hearing of the Justice Centre’s application to intervene took place October 29, 2020. A decision is pending.