One group's High Court push to broadcast political adverts could have wider significance.
Last week, Animal Defenders International was told it must wait until the autumn to discover whether its attempt to free campaigning groups from the ban on 'political' advertising on television and radio will be a success (Third Sector, 26 July).
ADI had sought a judicial review of the ban, enforced under the 2003 Communications Act, on its My Mate's a Primate TV advert, which was turned down for broadcast last year. After a three-day High Court hearing, judgement was reserved.
ADI is determined to overturn the ban, which it argues breaches Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, guaranteeing freedom of expression. "This is absolutely fundamental to any campaign groups wanting to challenge the status quo," says Jan Creamer, chief executive of ADI.
"Why is it OK for the Government to spend £200m a year on TV ads to promote its views while it stifles the right of others to do the same?"
Creamer believes the legislation reduces charities to "nothing more than big begging bowls". She says: "The Government is saying it's OK for us to sweep up the mess it leaves behind, but that we can't try to take political action to stop the mess from happening in the first place."
Chris Stalker, head of the NCVO's campaigning effectiveness programme, cites the example of environmental campaigning groups. Whereas oil companies can promote their environmental CSR policies on TV and radio, he says, campaign groups are prohibited from running adverts about corporate environmental damage and banned from raising the issue of climate change altogether.
"The balance is way out," he says. "We have concerns about the extent to which legislation inhibits what we consider to be legitimate campaigning through broadcast mechanisms - especially as it is incompatible with international human rights law."
Stalker believes the ADI case highlights serious issues facing campaigning groups wanting to challenge the Government on official policies. "It's not only the Communications Act," he says. "Legislation such as the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act could have serious implications for campaigning organisations."
That particular Act has been in the news for restricting the right to demonstrate within 1km of Parliament. There are also concerns about the impact on campaigning of other provisions, such as the Act's harassment clause.
Rosamund McCarthy, a consultant at law firm Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, says: "I doubt the Director of Public Prosecutions would look to impede Oxfam or Amnesty, but this legislation could be used against lesser-known charities. The scary thing is that companies can get a civil injunction against a charity. When does bombarding the chief executive of Monsanto with emails become harassment?"
McCarthy says there are other criminal laws that charities could unwittingly fall foul of, including the Public Order Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act.
"The Strategy Unit Report said the Government thinks it's great for charities to campaign," she says. "But there are all sorts of insidious, incremental restrictions."
McCarthy says the Charity Commission's CC9 regulations, which set out the parameters for charity campaigning activity, include no reference to any of the Government's criminal justice legislation or information on the ban on political broadcast advertising. "Charities have learnt more about what they can or can't do from last year's ban of the Make Poverty History advert than they have from CC9," she says.
Others agree. The Shelia McKechnie Foundation, which champions the right of voluntary organisations to campaign, believes CC9 restricts charities' campaigning activity and causes confusion - particularly with its definition of political campaigning. "It's time campaigners recognised the significance of the confusion and restrictions on campaigning," says Matthew Sowemimo, campaigns and communications manager at the foundation.
He says the voluntary sector will be presented with "a massive opportunity" if the ADI succeeds in overturning the ban on political advertising. "It would be the first step to showing the Government that campaigners are prepared to defend their right to free speech," he says. "Otherwise, we're allowing our freedom of expression to be gagged and bound."