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Judge Blocks Enforcement of NC Law Demanding Truth in Campaign Ads

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The law prohibits anyone from knowingly publishing or disseminating false information about a candidate with the intent to damage that candidate’s chances in the election. It enabled an ongoing investigation into the Stein commercial, which focused on untested rape kits from local law enforcement agencies.

O’Neill’s campaign cited the law in its September 2020 election council complaint against Stein’s campaign committee over the ad. That led to interviews by council investigators, while the State Bureau of Investigation later spoke with Stein, his campaign staff and a woman who appeared in the ad. Prosecutors called the law exaggerated and outdated, saying it fails to protect the core of political speech, thereby violating the First Amendment.

In its injunction, Eagles wrote that a temporary injunction was necessary because the plaintiffs and others could have been criminally charged for violating an overly broad statute of defamation before a hearing for a more lengthy injunction could be held.

Eagles told the legal parties to return as soon as possible on Aug. 4 to give reasons why the injunction should not be extended to a preliminary injunction.

Before the law’s constitutionality can be scrutinized, “the balance sheet favors a ban to protect the right of plaintiffs and other political candidates to freedom of expression,” she wrote Monday.

Outside attorneys representing the state council and the Wake DA — Stein’s office would otherwise defend the constitutionality of a state law — urged Eagles to reject the campaign’s request to block enforcement of the law. In court files, lawyers questioned why Stein’s campaign and the other plaintiffs had taken so long to challenge the law.

Now the “plaintiffs are seeking to interfere with the work of a state jury regarding possible state criminal law violations caused by a political advertisement that took place in 2020, nearly two years ago,” wrote Joe Zeszotarski, who represents Freeman. While Eagles did not issue a blanket ban on the law’s enforcement, dating back to at least 1931, Stein’s campaign attorney said it could find no legal records that it was ever enforced before.

Stein’s campaign, the consultancy that produced the ad and the woman in the ad wrote that they have now filed the lawsuit because “enforcement action” by the Wake DA office “seems imminent.” It was not worked out. The statute of limitations for the offense – punishable by up to 60 days in prison with fines – is two years. Any charges in the case would be a political blow to Stein, the state’s top law enforcement officer and a possible 2024 governor.

In a written statement, Stein’s campaign said it was pleased with Monday’s ruling and “we look forward to quickly resolving this matter once and for all.”

Freeman has withdrawn herself from the investigation – citing a close working relationship with both Stein and O’Neill – leaving her to assistant DA to lead the case. Freeman and a majority of Electoral Council members are Democrats.

The ad in question featured a woman claiming that O’Neill “left 1,500 rape kits on a shelf” in Forsyth County. O’Neill said at the time that the ad was fake because police stations, not prosecutors, are responsible for testing the kits.

O’Neill said in an email statement late Monday that Stein has gone to court “to avoid potential criminal charges” and “so politicians like him can routinely lie to the public without repercussions or punishment.”

The lawsuit called the ad a “corrective political ad,” intended to refute false accusations by O’Neill that Stein had failed to act on more than 15,000 untested rape kits during his time as attorney general.

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