10/04/2012 02:52 EDT | Updated 12/04/2012 05:12 EST

B.C. court of appeal rules out limits on third-party, pre-election spending

VANCOUVER - Freedom of expression advocates are hailing a court ruling that ensures there will be no limits to how much money third parties can spend on advertising leading up to the campaign for British Columbia's May 2013 election.

B.C.'s Court of Appeal ruled Thursday that government amendments to the Elections Act are not constitutionally sound because they would restrict almost all political expression in the lead-up to an election campaign.

The B.C. Liberals had asked the courts to approve a ban on political advertising in the 40 days before a campaign, even if the advertising cost no money.

"When you think about it, there's pretty much nothing that would not have been caught by that law," said Robert Holmes, a former president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association who represented the group as an intervenor in the case.

"I think it's a happy day for British Columbians and some serious grounds for celebration when you have this kind of a victory for the people."

The B.C. Liberals first tried to impose limits on political advertising in 2008 by legislating an end to any spending 60 days before an election.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation and several others public service unions challenged the law, and the court ruled such legislation was unconstitutional.

The government revised the law last spring and referred it back to the courts for approval. But Justice Peter Lowry said in a ruling Thursday the changes remain flawed.

"The definition of election advertising is overly broad," he wrote in the judgment.

"It captures virtually all political expression regardless of whether such is intended to influence the election, and ... even if their election advertising is voluntary."

The government argued the amendments would not impair freedom of political expression any more than was necessary to preserve fairness ahead of an election.

Attorney General Shirley Bond told the legislature in May the government wanted to limit wealthy groups that might attempt to dominate the political discourse by flooding media with paid advertising.

Bond said Thursday the government accepted the court's "clear reasons and thoughtful analysis" and would not appeal the decision.

"That said, government took a very responsible approach ," she said in a statement.

"Government initiated this action on behalf of British Columbians to ensure that in jurisdictions with fixed election dates, there was not an imbalance in the pre-election campaign period."

The Elections Act defines election advertising as "the transmission to the public by any means ... of an advertising message that promotes or opposes, directly or indirectly, a registered political party or the election of a candidate, including an advertising message that takes a position on an issue with which a registered political party or candidate is associated ... "

The definition doesn't include news programs, editorials, interviews, columns, letters, debates or speeches, so long as the publication was not paid to do the story. It also doesn't include books planned regardless of an election, or the transmission of a person's personal political views on a non-commercial basis over the Internet, telephone or by text messaging.

Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said the courts essentially signalled to the government it would not approve of any restrictions, regardless of the number of days.

He said that had the law been allowed, massive fines and jail times could technically be meted out to people who simply posted a hand-written sign, for example, objecting to lawn pesticides.

"We're encouraged," Gogolek said. "It sends a very clear signal to the government regarding the overbreadth of the definition of election advertising."

Teachers' union President Susan Lambert also welcomed the ruling.

"It's time the B.C. Liberals acknowledged that spirited political debate is fundamental to the democratic process, especially at election time," she said in a release.

In 2001, B.C. became the fist province to introduce fixed-date elections.

Neither the federal or any other provincial government has imposed limitations on election advertising before the writ is dropped.

The next provincial election will be held May 14, 2013.