North Carolina Attorney General Fights Campaign Ad Probe

FILE - North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein speaks in favor of protecting abortion access during a news conference at the North Carolina Department of Justice in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. The campaign committee for Stein, desperate to dodge possible criminal prosecution in a libel investigation into its political ads, asked a federal appeals court Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, to immediately block enforcement of a seldom used libel law before the Wake County district attorney impanels a grand jury. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum, File)
FILE - North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein speaks in favor of protecting abortion access during a news conference at the North Carolina Department of Justice in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. The campaign committee for Stein, desperate to dodge possible criminal prosecution in a libel investigation into its political ads, asked a federal appeals court Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, to immediately block enforcement of a seldom used libel law before the Wake County district attorney impanels a grand jury. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The campaign committee for North Carolina's Attorney General Josh Stein asked a federal court on Wednesday to block enforcement of a seldom-used libel law as the committee faces possible criminal prosecution for a political ad from Stein's last race.

Under fire for the TV ad targeting his 2020 Republican challenger, Stein's campaign filed a motion asking the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to grant a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the law.

Dating to at least 1931, the law makes it illegal to deliberately disseminate a false “derogatory report” that could harm a candidate’s chance of election. The campaign's motion comes as a Wake County district attorney prepares to empanel a grand jury in the case.

The motion urged that the district attorney be blocked from enforcing what the campaign called “an overbroad, poorly tailored criminal libel law" while the court assesses whether it violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

Caught between his political prospects and his duty to defend state law, the Democratic attorney general and potential 2024 gubernatorial contender finds himself fighting enforcement of a criminal law he's meant to defend — one that a former political opponent accused his own campaign of violating.

Stein’s GOP rival in 2020 — Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill — cited the law in a complaint to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, prompting Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman’s office to investigate even after the elections board dropped the case against Stein's campaign committee in 2021.

“The District Attorney for Wake County, NC, is threatening to enforce a criminal libel law in a way that curtails public debate and undermines the integrity of the democratic process in North Carolina,” Stein campaign attorney Pressly Millen wrote.

The O’Neill campaign has argued Stein’s commercial, which accused the Republican of letting more than a thousand rape kits go untested, was libelous because police rather than prosecutors are responsible for testing rape kits.

The misdemeanor for violating the law carries a penalty of up to 60 days in jail with fines, but someone with an otherwise clean criminal record would avoid serving time if convicted.

Stein also filed an emergency motion Wednesday asking the appellate court to decide the case by Friday “because grand jury proceedings are imminent.”

His latest legal actions follow U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles' refusal Monday to set aside the law while the Stein campaign and other plaintiffs seek to strike the statute.

Eagles asserts the law is constitutionally permissible because it “criminalizes false defamatory speech about public officials made with actual malice” and allows enough “breathing space” for protected speech.

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Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/H_Schoenbaum.