Watch what you tweet: New election law 'chills speech,' say critics


Though few Canadians seem to be aware of this, the recent federal election campaign was fought under a new law that imposes severe penalties for publishing misleading statements on the internet during the writ period. The new, amended Section 91 of the Canada Elections Act, which came into effect on September 11, threatens prison terms of up to five years and fines up to $50,000 for disseminating false information about "a candidate, a prospective candidate, the leader of a political party or a public figure associated with a political party." Though an earlier version of the law required that the person charged be aware that the statement is false, the final version removed the word "knowingly" — and allows a charge to be laid even in a case of someone sharing a statement they believe to be true. Even a cursory search of Twitter quickly turns up countless examples of Canadians who have posted statements that appear to violate the law. Moreover, one of Canada's most mainstream political advocacy groups says it has pulled back some of the messaging it normally sends out every election cycle — out of a fear of potential punishment. A response to a real problem Section 91 is the main plank of the government's effort to prevent disinformation campaigns from distorting the Canadian political process the way Russian troll farms targeted the U.S. presidential election in 2016. The law applies to both foreign and domestic actors, though critics have argued it would be difficult to enforce against groups or individuals outside Canada. Joanna Baron, a lawyer and executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, has launched a constitutional challenge of Section 91, arguing that it's an unreasonable restriction of free speech. Baron said her group agrees with the aim of defeating efforts to sabotage the democratic process. "That's a goal that we share, but we think this is an ineffective and overly draconian attempt to address it," she said. "Malevolent actors from Russia and China will not be deterred by a Canadian domestic law." Baron says that one of the participants in her organization's lawsuit is the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which dialled back some of its usual election advocacy work this time over concerns about aspects of the law. "This law has already effectively chilled legitimate political speech," she said. CBC News asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Section 91 during a campaign stop in Iqaluit. He said the government had struck the right balance with the new law. "We're in a world right now where we've seen the impact of the kinds of polarization, the kinds of politics of misinformation, of fear and division ..." Trudeau said. "We have developed an approach that is going to be protecting Canadians from misinformation. We recognize that this is a careful line to walk and we will continue to walk it with Canadians."