Free Speech

This is the third post in the series about my most recent article, “‘Third Parties’ and Democracy 2.0″, (2015) 60:2 McGill LJ 253. On Monday, I introduced the paper, which deals with the repercussions of political and technological changes on our framework for regulating the participation of persons other than parties and candidates in pre-electoral debate. Yesterday, I discussed political the political changes of the last 45 years, which have resulted in political parties more or less deserting the realm of policy debates, and leaving a void which can only be filled by those whom our electoral law considers to be “third parties” and relegates to the sidelines of pre-electoral debate.

Today, I take up the issue of technological change ― and especially the development of various “web 2.0” technologies and business models ― that has made political (as well as other) speech free not only in the legal, but also in the financial sense. I describe this change as the “separation of spending and speech.” I posted about it long ago, when I was writing the first draft of the article. But the issue is important enough to be worth re-emphasizing, and anyway only a few hardy souls were reading this blog at the time.

The idea is a simple one, but its implications are considerable. Up until ten years ago, at most, the only way a message (political or not), could be made to reach substantial numbers of people was through the print or electronic mass media ― either as content a media organization itself chose to run, as part of a news item or an editorial, or as an op-ed, or as a paid advertisement. Unless the media took up your message on its own volition ― and it had limited space to do so, especially for messages transmitted in the form chosen by their authors (such as newspaper op-eds), you had to pay for it to do so ― and pay a lot. The vast majority of individuals could not afford it ― when acting on their own, anyway, because organizations, notably trade unions, are in a different position thanks to their ability to pool together resources from large numbers of people.

Canadian election laws were written with this reality in mind. Those of them that regulate the participation by persons and entities other than candidates and political parties, a.k.a. “third parties,” address these the various types of communications and treat them differently depending on whether the third party has to pay for the transmission of the communication. Communications taken up by the media ― news reports, interviews, or op-eds ― are exempted from the definition of “election expenses” and thus not regulated. Paid advertisement is counted as an expense and strictly limited.

The combination of statutory spending limits and the limitations imposed by the technologies and business models of traditional mass media on the amount of third-party communications not covered by these limits served to circumscribe third party participation in pre-electoral debates. Political parties, by contrast, operate under much relaxed versions of these twin constraints. Spending limits to which they are subject are much higher than those imposed on third parties, and the media are more interested in giving them a voice ― even when, as I explained in yesterday’s post, the parties don’t really have anything interesting to say. Political parties could thus remain at the centre of the discussion.

Web 2.0 ― the websites that allow users to easily generate and communicate their own content, such as social networks, YouTube, and various blogging services ― changes things by removing one of the two constraints on the ability of third parties to communicate with voters. The spending limits are still in place, but it is no longer necessary to spend in order to speak. In Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, which upheld the federal restrictions on third party advertising, the dissent pointed out that these restrictions were so low as to prevent a third party from taking out advertisements in the national press, or in the electronic media. The majority responded by observing that most people could simply not afford to do so anyway. Both of these facts were and still are true. But now, thanks to the separation of spending and speech made possible by the technologies and business models of web 2.0, both may also be increasingly beside the point. Even a single person’s rant about a political party can easily be seen by hundreds of his or her “friends” on Facebook ― at no financial cost to him or her. Ten years ago, reaching the same audience would probably have cost a substantial sum of money, if it had been feasible at all. And of course the possibilities of “sharing” and hyperlinking increase the potential audience one may reach exponentially, at no additional expense ― which, again is a dramatic departure from the pre-Web 2.0 days.

To be sure, the Web 2.0 means of communication have not yet entirely displaced the traditional media as a means of reaching large numbers of people. But they have added a crucially important avenue through which third parties can express themselves throughout an election campaign, and thus reduced the severity of the effects of the spending limits on their ability to do so. Conversely, they have have deprived political parties of their near-monopoly on the political debate at election time ― which they were using to avoid policy discussion to the greatest extent possible. In my next post, the last in this series, I will argue that the law should keep this avenue open, and suggest some (relatively modest) reforms to ensure that it does so.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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