The US District Judge Catherine Eagles agreed on Monday – following a court hearing in Greensboro- to temporarily block any enforcement of state law in a political ad investigation of the North Carolina Attorney General’s campaign.
The North Carolina law prohibits anyone from knowingly publishing/ circulating false information about a candidate with the intent of hurting his/her chances in the election.
Last week, North Carolina AG Josh Stein’s campaign and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against State Board of Elections members and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
The Democrat Stein was in danger of being prosecuted for airing a possibly untruthful ad – which focused on untested rape kits held by local law enforcement agencies- in 2020 aired against then-Republican challenger Jim O’Neill.
Citing the law, O’Neill’s campaign filed a complaint in September 2020 to the election board against Stein’s campaign committee over the ad, which led to interviews by board investigators.
Stein, his campaign staff, and a woman who appeared in the ad were later obliged to also talk to the State Bureau of Investigation.
Judge Eagles explained the temporary restraining order saying plaintiffs were likely to win on legal claims that the law is unconstitutional. They claimed in their lawsuit that the law fails to protect core political speech – leading it to violate the First Amendment – and called it overbroad and outdated.
Her decision means that the office of Wake County DA is not permitted to use that law to prosecute anyone associated with a 2020 ad release by Stein’s campaign since the ongoing investigation into the Stein commercial was enabled by the abovementioned law.
Judge Eagles stressed the necessity of the temporary order because without it, the plaintiffs would’ve been subject to potential criminal prosecution for violating an overly broad criminal libel statute before a hearing for a more long-term injunction could be held.
She wrote that the balance of the equities favors an injunction protecting the First Amendment right of the plaintiffs and other political candidates to free speech before the law’s constitutionality can be closely examined.
Legal parties have until Aug. 4 to give to the Court any reasons why the order shouldn’t be extended into a preliminary injunction.
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