Fourth Circuit blocks enforcement of N.C. law against A.G. Josh Stein

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The United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has: temporarily blocked an investigation into the North Carolina attorney general over a negative campaign ad, saying the state law he is accused of is likely unconstitutional.

“Candidates running for office in North Carolina may well be chilled in their campaign speech by the sudden resuscitation of a criminal law that has been dormant for nearly a century,” the court wrote.

The debate revolves around a 1931 North Carolina law that criminalized the publication of a “derogatory” campaign ad, “knowing that such a report is false or in reckless disregard for truth or falsehood.”

A grand jury is investigating whether Democrat Josh Stein lied in an ad blaming his Republican rival for a backlog of untested rape kits during his successful 2020 re-election campaign for attorney general, according to court records.

Stein’s opponent, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, protested that the police are responsible for handling rape kits – not the prosecutors. He complained to the State Elections Council, which found there was too much “ambiguity” to recommend charges. But the office of Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman announced plans to sue a grand jury this summer, according to court records, prompting Stein’s campaign to file a federal lawsuit to stop her. .

Freeman, a Democrat, abstained from the investigation but has defended it, telling a reporter that “the system should apply to everyone and without bias.”

Stein claimed in court that the rule from the advertisement — “O’Neill left 1500 rape kits on a shelf” – knocked because prosecutors can encourage and help police clear their evidence backlog. (O’Neill had previously blamed Stein, who first became Attorney General in 2017).

Even if the ad was false, Stein argued, it would be protected under current First Amendment doctrine. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 repealed a law criminalizing false claims of military honor, saying that “falsity alone may not be enough to take the speech outside the First Amendment.”

A federal court ruled against him earlier this month, saying that “the statute promotes compelling state interests in protecting against electoral fraud and libel and is narrowly tailored to serving those interests.”

The appeals panel did not conclude whether the First Amendment would protect a law prohibiting false and defamatory campaign advertising. But it ruled that North Carolina’s law appears to be unconstitutional in political attacks that are derogatory but factual.

“The First Amendment does not allow a state to criminalize ‘true statements’, not even those of ‘actual malice,'” the court wrote.

Similar laws in Minnesota and Ohio have been overturned by appeals courts.

The ruling is a ban pending appeal; the judges are expected to hear arguments on the case in December. Two judges, Obama-appointed Albert Diaz and Biden-appointed Toby J. Heytens, approved the order. Trump-appointed Allison Jones Rushing disagreed, saying she would “let the North Carolina courts interpret this untried statute in the normal way if it is actually enforced.”

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, including the advisers who created the ad and the woman who starred in it, celebrated the ruling.

“We are pleased that the court saw the merit in pressing the pause button … so that they can consider the implications of the First Amendment of allowing criminal charges for speech on important public issues,” attorney Pressly Millen said in a statement. an e-mail.

A Freeman attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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