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The Daily Tar Heel

Investigation into Josh Stein closed, NC law used ruled 'likely unconstitutional'

josh stein file

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein delivers a talk at UNC on January 24, 2018.

Updated Feb. 9, 5:31 p.m.: On Thursday, the Wake County District Attorney’s Office announced it closed its investigation into N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. 

“Understanding that the case was one of intense public interest, it has been the assigned prosecutor’s intent to exercise due diligence and to evaluate the evidence and apply the law without partiality from the beginning of this matter," Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said in a statement. "As prosecutors, we respect the role of the court in determining the constitutionality of a duly enacted state law."

A U.S. appeals court ruled Wednesday that a North Carolina law making "derogatory reports" toward candidates during an election cycle illegal was "likely unconstitutional."

The law had been the basis of an investigation against N.C. Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Josh Stein last year by Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. Stein published an advertisement in 2020 against his then-opponent, Jim O'Neill, that O'Neill later filed a Board of Elections complaint over, citing the 90-year old statute.

The appeals court found that the law violates the First Amendment because it both restricts some truthful speech and restricts speech based on its content.

"We conclude the Act is likely unconstitutional for two reasons," the court's unanimous decision read. "First, the Act appears to criminalize at least some truthful statements — a result the First Amendment forbids. Second, even if the Act reaches only false statements, it makes impermissible content-based distinctions in selecting which speech to forbid."

The case was remanded to a lower court for further proceedings.


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Ethan E. Horton

Ethan E. Horton is the 2023-24 city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a city & state assistant editor and as the 2023 summer managing editor. Ethan is a senior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and political science, with a minor in history.