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Attempt to police campaign ads, prosecute Attorney General Stein is absurd and unconstitutional

Former President Donald Trump arguably violated North Carolina’s obsolete, absurd and unconstitutional ban on “derogatory” comments about political candidates every time he visited the state in 2020. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Just about all of us have read those news stories that periodically circulate about the dumbest laws found in our nation’s various statute books.

You know, like the ones that say it’s illegal to honk your horn near a sandwich shop after 9:00 p.m. or that it’s illegal to swear in public, or raise pet rats.

Now, thanks to some confused and/or vindictive people with way too much time on their hands, we have an entry from North Carolina.

As you’ve probably heard, there is an effort underway in Wake County to — we are, regrettably, not making this up — charge state Attorney General Josh Stein with a misdemeanor over the content of a disputed campaign advertisement in the 2020 election.

As WRAL reports:

A grand jury on Monday returned a presentment to the Wake County district attorney’s office, a move that allows prosecutors to pursue a possible indictment against Attorney General Josh Stein and his campaign over statements made in a 2020 television ad.

…At the heart of the case is a television ad by Stein’s campaign in which a supporter claimed that his opponent in that race, Jim O’Neill, “left 1,500 rape kits sitting on a shelf, leaving rapists on the streets.”

O’Neill, the Forsyth County District Attorney, alleged that the ad is defamatory because local law enforcement agencies such as city police departments and county sheriffs departments typically maintain custodial control of rape kits.

The basis of the complaint is a law that somehow made it into the state statute books in 1931 and that has, as best as anyone can tell, never actually been used. It reads, quite absurdly, as follows:

For any person to publish or cause to be circulated derogatory reports with reference to any candidate in any primary or election, knowing such report to be false or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity, when such report is calculated or intended to affect the chances of such candidate for nomination or election.

As even a cursory reading of such a law reveals, it is absurdly vague, unenforceable and violative of the First Amendment. I mean, what the heck? Under such a law, just about every campaign in the state could be subject to prosecution. A lawsuit filed by Stein neatly sums up the absurdity of the law.

Indeed, Donald Trump probably violated this statute ten times during every speech he made in the state in 2020. And you know he would never have taken the extraordinary step Stein took of running a corrective ad to clarify any mistaken impressions the initial ad might have provided.

The bottom line: Anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention knows what this farce is about — namely, an effort by political opponents to derail the Democratic official best-positioned to run for governor in 2024. And the fact that the Wake County District Attorney’s office hasn’t fulfilled its duty to uphold the constitution by declining to pursue a prosecution under such a blatantly ridiculous and unconstitutional law is a shameful embarrassment.

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Attempt to police campaign ads, prosecute Attorney General Stein is absurd and unconstitutional