Can Canada Ban Books?

The New Yorker has published an interesting, albeit tendentious, as The Volokh Conspiracy’s Jonathan Adler explainsaccount by Jeffrey Toobin of the notorious Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down limits on corporations’ spending on pre-electoral advertising. According to Mr. Toobin, the key to Supreme Court’s engagement with the  case was a question asked by Justice Alito: while the law at issue applied to “electronic communications” – first and foremost television – could its constitutional rationale also apply to justify prohibitions on appeals to vote for or against a candidate published in a book? Could the government censor books published by corporations (that would be all of them) in the pre-electoral period if they contained “electioneering”? The U.S. government’s lawyer said it could.

The Justices leaned forward. It was one thing for the government to regulate television commercials. That had been done for years. But a book? Could the government regulate the content of a book?

“That’s pretty incredible,” Alito responded. “You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?”

It is at that moment that the case became one about censorship generally, rather than the specific and unusual circumstances actually at issue.

The trouble is, Mr. Toobin contends, the lawyer “was wrong. Congress could not ban a book. [The law at issue] was based on the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.” Prof. Adler argues that it is Mr. Toobin who is mistaken. “[T]he government,” he observes, “never sought to defend the law on the basis that it was limited to electronic media. After all, the point of the was to limit the role of money in campaigns, not limit television advertising. The position the government was defending was that Congress could limit corporate expenditures related to campaigns, not that it could regulate TV.”

My purpose is not to dwell on the rights or wrongs of Citizens United, but to look at the way the issue raised by Justice Alito plays out in Canadian election law. Par. 319(b) of the Canada Elections Act exempts “the distribution of a book, or the promotion of the sale of a book, for no less than its commercial value, if the book was planned to be made available to the public regardless of whether there was to be an election” from its definition of “election advertising” which it sharply restricts. Québec’s Election Act contains a similar qualified exception in subs. 404(2). So, since the exemptions are qualified to only apply to books published “regardless of whether there was to be an election,” books published with a view to an upcoming election, or books the publication of which has been accelerated to coincide with an electoral campaign, would not be exempt. Overrunning the spending limits (which are exceedingly low federally, and even more so in Québec) on publishing and promoting them would be an offence, as would be not reporting these activities to election regulators. Is this the sort of restrictions on the freedom of expression we are prepared to live with?

But prof. Adler’s argument points to a still more serious problem. Even the qualified exemptions now existing do not sit easily with the rationales for the regulation of and restrictions on election spending, especially by actors other than political parties, which the Supreme Court of Canada embraced in Libman v. Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 569 and Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827. Those rationales are that non-party voices must be muffled, if not quite silenced, in the pre-electoral debate, lest political parties have trouble being heard, and that the influence of money ought to be reduced, if not quite eliminated. The exemption for books seems to run counter to these purposes. Could Parliament and provincial legislatures abolish it if they felt like it? Quite possibly. Doing so would, I have argued, be rationally connected to the overall objectives of election spending regulation. It is harder to guess whether it would be held to be a “minimal impairment” of freedom of expression, and whether the courts would find that its salutary effects will outweigh the deleterious ones, but if the prohibition on publishing an ad in a national newspaper has been upheld (in Harper, as the dissenting judgment points out), why not that on a book? Once again, isn’t there something wrong with our approach to freedom of expression in the pre-electoral context if it countenances prohibitions of this sort?

2 thoughts on “Can Canada Ban Books?

  1. Pingback: More about Election Law | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: Twelve Banned Books Weeks | Double Aspect

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